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Motion and Light

Sensory overload at Milwaukee Art Museum

Jan. 17, 2008
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Providing a survey of any art movement prompts the question “Where to begin?” Take kinetic and optical art: In tracing its search for a more immersive art experience using color, motion, sound and light, one might begin with Cubism’s similar break with the singular perspective or the 17th- and 18thcentury preoccupation with perspective boxes and stereoscopes as a means of creating virtual depth. Joseph Ketner, curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new contemporary art exhibit, “Sensory Overload,” has chosen to begin his survey of kinetic and optical art with the ideals and practices of the Bauhaus.

“It’s that point in time when we think about art expanding away from painting, sculpture and printmaking in the traditional sense,” Ketner says.

The exhibit is made up of paintings, installations, sculpture and video art arranged chronologically, beginning with works by the Bauhaus‚ Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Also included are works by some of optic and kinetic art’s earliest proponents, including Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and Alex Calder. Due homage is paid to video art through the work of one of its earliest innovators, Nam Jun Paik, and the latter part of the exhibit features contemporary artists such as Michelle Grabner, Liz Phillips and James Siena, among others.

The exhibit is bookended by installations and projected artworks that almost mirror one another in the concepts that drive them. On one end we have Stanley Landsman’s Infinity Chamber (1968), and on the other Erwin Redl’s Matrix XV (2007), both exploring the notion of infinite space despite being almost a half-century apart. (Neither work had yet been installed when I visited.) Landsman’s piece invites the viewer to inhabit a cube decked in numerous light bulbs and mirrors, which create the sensation of infinite depth. Redl invites viewers to move through a room strung with rows of blue LED lights to attain a similar effect. The fact that his piece offers a dynamic rather than a static experience reflects the manner in which our experience of virtual reality and other contemporary mediums has informed our notion of infinity.

Conceptual Recycling

For some, optic art may seem rather spiritless, given similar results are nowadays achievable through computer programs. However, artists like Grabner continue to work manually to create the visual tremor and perpetuity that are characteristic of Riley and Vasarely. What’s more, artists aren’t the only ones reexamining the potential of these early opart pieces.

“These objects have been despaired for quite some time,” says Ketner, referring perhaps to the fact that the first op-art exhibit in 1965 at New York’s MoMA was panned by critics. “It is at this point in time that people in my profession are beginning to look again at these and try to understand them.”

Similar exhibitions seem to be cropping up everywhere: New York’s Pratt Institute held one last year, as did Germany’s Schirn Kunsthalle and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s reason for doing an exhibition of this sort is rather logical given the museum’s history.

“We have a very strong tradition and relationship with the notion of kinetic, optical, sound, light, interactive and environmental kind of things, including the projected image,” Ketner says, including a 1967 exhibit the museum co-hosted called “Light/Motion/Space.”

What’s more, the exhibit is part of a museum-wide effort to re-evaluate its collection and use it to refresh people’s experience of art.

“We are conceptualizing a comprehensive reinstallation of the whole museum,” Ketner says. “Each curator is looking at their objects and saying, ‘Well, these are some story lines, themes, that occur in these objects‚’ and we sit down and compare all of them.”

Perhaps in this light the exhibit is less “sensory overload” and more “conceptual recycling,” allowing viewers to keep their perceptions of art and its evolution fluid rather than fossilized.

“Sensory Overload” opens Thursday, Jan. 24, with a lecture by Joe Ketner and Erwin Redl at 6 p.m.


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