October 18, 2006

Art Fag City: When the Theater is the Medium

A pair of installations in Queens complement cinema with design

By Paddy Johnson

Tut's Fever Movie Palace at the Museum of the Moving Image

These days, the evaluation of a good movie house tends to begin with questions like, "How big is my seat?" "How many cup holders are attached to it?" Or, "Are there six or eight channels in that sound system?" We ask these questions not only because we have become accustomed to viewing films in this manner, but also because there is a symbiotic relationship between what we see on the screen and the theater in which we watch it.

Naturally, there are all kinds of movies and video not suited for the blockbuster viewing experience, which is why it's important to house these films in environments that complement the content and shape of a film. Last Saturday, for example, I spent part of my afternoon at the Museum of Moving Image watching the last episode of a Captain Marvel serial inside Tut's Fever Movie Palace (1986-1988), a small, playful theater that plays down the movie's crackles and pops and accommodates its short length with a modest sound system and seating arrangement. The space also represents a nod to early film sensibility as it contains a wealth of references to cinema and architecture from 1920 to 1950.

The theater itself was designed by multi-media artist Red Grooms (born 1937) and his wife Lysiane Luong, as a museum commission for their main exhibition Behind the Screen. An homage to movie palaces of the 1920s, Tut's Palace combines Egyptian imagery and comic book caricatures of stars like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, clearly drawing upon a mixture of art deco aesthetics and contemporary architects such as Michael Graves and Robert Venturi. There is some difference in the approach of these latter two professionals, however, as they both use ornament as means of creating structure; by contrast, Grooms and Luong rely almost entirely upon ornamentation in the form of curtain walls.

TV Lounge. Enamel paint, orlon acrylic yarn, cowhide, vinyl, linoleum, wood, 12 x 12 x 12 feet

Displayed on this same floor is Jim Isermann's TV Lounge(1988), another mixed media installation set up for audience viewing. But unlike Tut's Fever Viewing Palace, which creates a separate architectural space, the lounge is an island exhibition display, so visitors hesitate somewhat to actually use the space. What's more, while there are clearly conservation issues that have to be taken into account -- nobody wants to see the couch worn through by visitors -- cushions encased in plastic really aren't that inviting.

The installation itself recalls a combination of works by General Idea, a three-person artist collective comprising Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. In the '70s and '80s they created works like Reconstructing Futures and Test Pattern, which share a similar aesthetic with TV Lounge and work with the idea of viral images (though it should be noted that Iserman's work only superficially addresses the idea that medium is infectious.)

The current high-definition video shorts by Bradley Eros, Leslie Thornton, Pawel Wojtasik and Grahame Weinbrien have no relation to these concepts, but it's not like there has to be complete cohesiveness between your concept sofa and what's on your TV anyway; it doesn't exactly detract from the viewing experience. What does detract is that like much of the programming on the Voom network, the work sponsored by Voom HD labs is still developing and largely representative of the kind of video art that has made people believe the genre is boring. Virtually everything this company touches seems to have a dated feel to it, which is a problem because none of it functions with a self-awareness that this aesthetic exists. You'd think watching this stuff from within TV Lounge might help alleviate some of these issues by heightening a sense of nostalgia, but it only goes to show that cool couches can't make up for what's not onscreen.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York City art blog Art Fag City

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Comments (1)

By far the best photo of a Red Grooms installation I've seen on the net, and I've been looking everywhere. Know of any good photos of Ruckus Manhattan, etc.?


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