Monitor Wizard

Video artist Van McElwee injects warmth and life into an ostensibly "cold" art form

The video installation "Procession" consists of a row of monitors aligned slightly off-center to one another on the floor so each screen can be seen simultaneously. Images from different parades appear like waves continually breaking toward the viewer, with baton twirlers, flag wavers, floats in the shape of Spanish galleons shooting confetti from their cannons, monster trucks, Shriners on camels, and penguin-suited marchers waving to crowds. One sequence reveals McElwee's sly sense of humor: Two beauty queens in revealing bodysuits are interwoven with the image of a man dressed as a bishop, apparently blessing their exposed cleavage as a monkey swings over his miter. "Procession" again reveals the artist's appreciation of fakery and, more seriously, his investigation into the nature of reality, or what F. Scott Fitzgerald called "the unreality of reality."

"I don't have fixed ideas of what reality is," says McElwee. "It seems to be something infinitely malleable and changeable, and interestingly enough, because of changes in technology, it seems to be mutating in some unexpected ways. I think that altering reality through the manipulation of recorded fragments of the world is a way of altering awareness, but it also has a symbolic power that relates to the very modulation of reality itself, and that's an important use of video."

McElwee does not consider it the artist's job to create a true representation of reality. "Picasso said, 'I don't paint what I see; I paint what I think.' I don't see art as representation of the real. I don't see it as unreal, either. It seems like the creation or the further development of the real. I'd say 'evolution,' but that sounds too New Agey," he laughs.

"I've always been interested in fake things," says video artist Van McElwee. "Luxor," for example, juxtaposes images of Luxor, Egypt, and the Luxor casino in Las Vegas.
"I've always been interested in fake things," says video artist Van McElwee. "Luxor," for example, juxtaposes images of Luxor, Egypt, and the Luxor casino in Las Vegas.

The "modulation of reality" that McElwee investigates involves the most basic elements -- time and space. He describes the installation of "Procession," for example, as "a temporal event recurring infinitely on each screen and is spread out like a standing waveform in the gallery. The viewer is literally able to wander in and out of this temporal event. It's a way of playing with dimensionality. And not so much in a totally controlled way that I fully understand myself. It's just a playground for taking time and space here, and there's another time and space there, and there's another time and space.

"And then you put them into this relationship and they create clusters. If a four-dimensional form passed through this building, it might appear over there, and then over there, in different times and places." McElwee refers to the installation "Confluence," which is composed of a cluster of monitors showing a liquid melding of various crowded environments, street scenes and passageways: "It's like one thing, but it's happening in different times and places all over the gallery. But if you think of it as one thing, you have to think of it outside of that time and space. But that's not hard to do, because once you've seen it you think of it as one thing. It is one thing. It's multidimensional. If I asked you to think of your hand, you don't think about one view of your hand. You think of the whole thing."

In describing these complex relationships of time, space, dimension and electronic media, it's characteristic that McElwee, the accomplished practitioner of figure drawing, returns to the human hand. Despite the pulsing disequilibrium of sound and image that is emblematic of McElwee's work, there is a human center, one that strives to contain the multiplicity of experience in a real core.

"Confluence" could serve as a title for much of McElwee's work, his monitors acting as conduit to multiple realities, creating yet another reality. McElwee's artistic drive to merge time, space and form, "the further development of the real," is partly inspired by a kind of vision or feeling he's long held. He jokes that he's written some bad poems about the idea, but perhaps through electronic media he's coming closer to making it manifest. "I've often felt like that deep, deep inside of me," he says, "there was some sort of translucent, darkly fluorescent opal where the world poured through it.

"Somewhere there's an opening in the whole world, like a vapor."

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