Lawrimore Project is a major new Seattle gallery on the far southern fringes of downtown. The gallery’s dramatic sequence of exhibition spaces, designed by the noted Seattle architects Lead Pencil Studio, has hosted a wide variety of cutting-edge exhibits since the Project’s debut last summer. The current exhibition, a series of video sculptures by recent UW graduate Tivon Rice, is very much true to form: eye-catching, provocative, and one-of-a-kind. Our art critic Gary Faigin joins us to talk about this intriguing show.
The most revealing piece in Tivon Rice’s spectacular array of video-powered light displays is the smallest and the most straightforward. A tiny, black and white television screen sits on a shelf, its tapering glass tip wired into hidden components. A mirror image of the same TV tube, molded from milky white plastic, is glued onto its front, covering the screen. Along the rim where the two elements are joined, a tiny bit of very intense television activity is visible. The pulsating, sparkling edge (created by video snow) gave me the impression of a swarm of electronic bees, buzzing in furious protest of their carefully engineered confinement.
All of the 5 installations in the Rice exhibition share this strategy of using television screens as source of illumination rather than information. No wonder those swirling electronic sparks are so mad – Rice has effectively put a bag over their digital head. Content isn’t the point, so much as the way that content is delivered, the intensity, rhythm, and color of the media stream. Given the hypnotic effect that conventional television tends to have on its viewers, Rice is turning the tables, using television not for its considerable mesmeric power, but mostly as a source of artistic light. Key to his enterprise is the peculiar flicker of the old cathode ray tube, familiar to all of us as shifting nighttime radiance we see behind a neighbor’s drawn window shades, here taking center stage.
This isn’t new, of course. James Turrell famously created a light box in which a hidden television made the air vibrate with mysterious pulses, and Dan Flavin explored the evocative glow of store-bought fluorescent tubes.
Rice builds on the work of his erstwhile predecessors, hiding the screen like Turrell, making industrial light spiritual, like Flavin. But programming of his video sources is more complex, his installations and the concepts behind them, much more involved. Take “Philo’s Cave”, for example, another display based on naked black and white TV tubes covered with plastic hoods. In the installation, five small monitors flicker on a set of vertical wooden shelves. This time we are invited to peek at what’s on TV, since Rice has left a small peephole at the snout of the plastic cover. What we see inside –barely – is a snatch of a Balinese shadow puppet play, created and filmed by the artist. But the puppet show is part of the subliminal message of the piece; what we perceive once we take our eye away from the peephole aren’t puppets and poles, but merely a chorus line of flickers, with a dark horizontal scan line traveling across all five screens at once, again and again, an abstract visual metronome beating time.
The title of the piece can be taken on several levels. The ‘Philo’ of “Philo’s Cave” is Philo Farnsworth, the tormented figure at the heart of the invention of television, but the title also refers, of course, to Plato’s Cave. Like the cave dwellers Plato described in the Republic, we poor viewers mistake the shadows of the puppets, transmuted by electronics, for reality. Rice very cleverly and engagingly suggests that rather than bring us closer to the forms of the real, Farnsworth’s television has only pushed us further back into Plato’s Cave, and that much further from direct experience.
Other installations explore different aspects of the way video can mediate our experience. In the enormous front room of the gallery, specially designed for large-scale installations and at the moment kept completely dark, Rice has mounted three multi-faceted, six-foot plastic domes on wooden pedestals. Each dome, its form reminiscent of close-ups of stone crystals, covers an array of video monitors programmed to display three color channels from the sci-fi movie “Tron”. As the highly-modified and pixilated video clip progresses, the domes glitter and pulse, now showing the three primary colors, then all one color, then all another. It’s clear something very complicated is going on, but the visual payoff isn’t quite up to the scale and ambition of the piece.
More satisfying as an experience is the equally ambitious multiple screen installation entitled “Apotheosis”. The piece was designed for the Project’s theatre space, a large room with wooden bleachers specially built for media experiences. In the current display, 44 video monitors face the bleachers, mounted cheek-to-jowl four screens high and 11 rows across. As we watch, shimmering pastel colors sweep in successive waves across the lined-up TVs, the color shifts following a sequence meant to suggest alternating natural rhythms of growth and annihilation. To say that the shifting colors are meant to suggest the cycle of birth and death isn’t really a stretch, since Rice has covered each monitor with a bulbous plastic snout suggesting, especially when pink or orange colors are active, a variety of body parts: nipple, nose, penis. I personally imagined groping, fleshy fingers, a satisfying metaphor for Rice’s desire for the video experience to touch the viewer in some new, previously unattainable, fashion.
Seattle is still in its early stages as a place to make and appreciate art alongside long-established centers like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but Lawrimore Project clearly has a vision that reaches far beyond its romantically scruffy, edge-of-the-civilized-universe setting. The Project represents a potent match between a set of smart, ambitious artists, and a smart, ambitious art dealer, Scott Lawrimore. Stay tuned.