Social stimuli 

Eyedrum exhibitions deconstruct the cultural impact of sight and sound

There are certain things we deal with every day but rarely acknowledge:

• That the meat on our plate was once a living animal that died for our dinner.

• That the information at our fingertips -- in our TV sets and radios -- is delivered by an intricate, invisible process governed by technology we rarely question.

• That the difference in how we look at men and women is influenced by everything from Hollywood movies to contemporary porn.

• That we are surrounded by an endless cacophony of sound, most of which we ignore.

Those truisms and the many complexities of sound and image are handled with profound insight in two exhibitions at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery.

In Painted Screens, curated by local artist Travis T. Pack, Oliver Smith's fascinating work "Television" does what many successful artworks do. It takes something ubiquitous and unquestioned, like gender roles and the way TV has insinuated itself like a virus into our lives, and reminds us of its ultimate importance.

"Television" centers on a creaky black-and-white, 1940s-era industrial film explaining the marvel of television.

The film, with its hazy borders and murky second-generation imagery, unfolds like a dream. The menfolk fondle their cathode tubes and control panels, and the women pose willingly to illustrate what this technology can do. Without its soundtrack, the piece looks like a point-by-point explanation of some ancient religious cult that worshiped TV.

Or, as a quote from that stodgy grad school ideologue Karl Marx, which Smith cannily references, warns: "They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations."

Amen, and pass the remote.

Smith, like the other two artists participating in Painted Screens, has thought long and hard about all the ways conventions of TV and film have informed how we see the world.

In "(In)visible Frenzy," a work displayed on two televisions, Smith continues his critique of the way porn films make women into objects. But the distorted images and too much technological fiddling muddle Smith's worthy message. One would be hard-pressed to realize that the images come from porn without reading the artist's statement. Likewise, Richard Gess' "Radiant," a video projection that finds a trippy array of patterns in television static, fails to add to the commentary on the politics of looking.

The jumping-off point for Gess' and Smith's artworks in Painted Screens are the eerie, intriguing paintings of Alan Xie (aka Caomin Xie), also on display.

The Chinese-born artist uses horizontal and vertical lines running across the surface of his paintings and the greenish hues of a TV on the fritz to mimic the look of television.

Xie brings out a tension between film, with its abundant overload of information, and painting, a more suggestive and mysterious medium. Xie is drawn to images of sex and ecstasy, as in his series of four paintings of two people kissing, which were taken from the film The Center of the World. That gesture is frozen into prolonged and perpetual erotic tableaux.

What all three artists are doing is forcing viewers to contemplate how they perceive the world and how the media guide us to look at it in a certain way, which is a perennially worthy project in an increasingly media-dominated age.

That point is made most persuasively in Gess' "Languor," a video work composed of still images taken from Victorian paintings. The piece focuses on details like sunset skies, naked bodies, flowers and embracing lovers. Like his Painted Screens compatriots, Gess points out the erotic nature of the gaze. The work is also a funny distillation of the narrative crux of art history, as a succession of paintings about romantic love, war and religious ecstasy.

If you can get past the claustrophobia, the stifling heat, and the sensation of premature burial, then Nat Slaughter and Blake Williams' sound art installation, 25 documented public compositions, at the rear of the gallery is a fascinating meditation on what the human ear filters out.

The artists tried to create an authentic recording of the world around them by using stereo recorders to mimic human hearing. They took their tape recorders to big-box retailers like Office Max, Wal-Mart and Pep Boys (though they weren't there the day I was, or they would have recorded two hours of impatient sighing and teeth grinding).

Their loop of found sounds installed in the cinder block room captures the cacophony of the banal: piped in music courtesy of Christina Aguilera, the rush and murmur of voices, and the incessant pings of supermarket scanners. The noise is overwhelming and a reminder that we ignore a good portion of the sounds that surround us, which the recordings equalize into a manic orchestra. The room is painted gold, and to further destabilize you (and protect the gold floor), you take your shoes off before you enter.

I suggest bringing a friend to perch along with you on the gold bench concealing a woofer to stave off any sensations of being left to rot in a golden tomb.



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