jennifer steinkamp

artist profile by sharon mizota

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A highlight of “California Video” is Jennifer Steinkamp’s latest video projection, Oculus Sinister (left eye). Known for large-scale, immersive installations that interact with and transform architectural space, the Los Angeles-based artist has turned an awkward skylight in the Getty Museum into a reflection on the institution’s history.

The oculus-a tilted, cylindrical space that curator Glenn Phillips compares to a “dunce cap on the side of someone’s head”-ends in a circular window that normally reveals a glimpse of sky. For the installation, the glass is blackened so the projection can be seen, but Steinkamp took the classic form as her inspiration. “An oculus is an architectural element traditionally thought of as the eye of God,” she says. “So I played off of that idea. What would a god’s point of view be? And so I thought about the history of the Getty and the Getty Villa as well and how that connects to this city called Herculaneum, which was hit by the volcano that destroyed Pompeii.”

The Getty Villa is a replica of an ancient home that was buried and preserved by the eruption’s pyroclastic flow, or as Steinkamp puts it, “800-degree mud.” It is the museum’s original home, commissioned by J. Paul Getty in the ‘70s to house his collection of antiquities. With Oculus Sinister, Steinkamp brings those layers of history into the museum’s current sleek hilltop abode. “A god’s view could cross over time and space,” she says. “So I made an image of this pyroclastic flow in colors coming through the oculus.” As experienced by the viewer, the projection fills the curved walls with an avalanche of vivid waves.

Steinkamp, 49, has been creating video installations since the late ‘80s, usually in response to specific settings and often involving audience participation. In Einstein’s Dilemma, from 2003, she transformed the walls of a lobby at CalTech University in Pasadena with explosions of multi-colored clouds triggered by the movements of passersby. In 2002’s Jimmy Carter, she filled the walls of a room with skeins of animated flowers; while the viewer does not directly activate the work, his or her figure is allowed to interrupt the projection, becoming a part of the installation. “You know so much through your body,” she states. “Your body is moving through the space, so you’re an important element in this. You’re not passive.”

Before discovering video as a medium, Steinkamp had originally pursued a career in graphic design. “In 1982 I saw some of the first computer animation and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what I have to do,’” she recalls. Among her other influences were the non-linear, surrealist-tinged works of Maya Deren, a pioneering female filmmaker of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Feminism and current events often underlie Steinkamp’s relatively abstract works. Jimmy Carter was created in response to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, its gently undulating flowers intended to evoke the peaceful legacy of the former president. “It’s making a subtle political statement,” she says. “It’s not blaring.” Similarly, a smaller flower projection, Dance Hall Girls, from 2004-05, comments obliquely on female stereotypes. “I’d heard the word ‘dance hall girls’ on TV on some kind of western and I thought ‘Ooh, that’s a strange word, isn’t it?’” she recalls. “I thought it was sort of funny and sexist.” Projected at floor level, the small images of individual flowers “dance” as if animated from within, contradicting the derogatory connotations of the title with their otherworldly beauty.

This seamless blend of social commentary and visual allure ensures that Steinkamp’s work appeals to a wide audience, and so far, 2008 is shaping up to be a busy year. A retrospective opens at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York this month, and a solo exhibition at L.A.’s ACME gallery is scheduled for May. In December, she will represent the U.S. at the Cairo Biennial. Meanwhile, ongoing installations can be seen at Staples Center in downtown L.A., the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and Victory Park in Dallas, Texas.

Jennifer Steinkamp’s Oculus Sinister (left eye), will be on view at “California Video” from March 15 – June 8 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Los Angeles, (310) 440-7300.

Steinkamp’s retrospective will be on view from March 14 – June 29 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, New York, (716) 882-8700.