Fresh Paint
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Slow World: Viola Meets Morris
The trio of current exhibits at Northwestern University's Block Gallery is called "Inspired by the Past" (though curiously, not on the web site). Two of them relate directly to the Arts and Crafts movement of the turn of the last century. How We Might Live: The Arts and Crafts Interior is in the downstairs Alsdorf Gallery, and is the more interesting of the two. Upstairs is the big ticket event (though free), The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design. More wallpaper patterns and church window designs than you can shake a stick at.

I'm afraid I had difficulty concentrating on this display because the third exhibit was Bill Viola's 1995 video, "The Greeting", one of the 5 parts of the "Buried Secrets" installation from the Venice Biennale of that year.

I'm not sure whether it's been seen in the Chicago area before, or at least it hasn't been recently. It's the one that takes its inspiration from Pontormo’s painting The Visitation (1528-29) and shows the effect of a third woman greeting two who had been standing chatting. It was a single take of 45 seconds but is slowed down so that it fills about 10 minutes. It is shown in a dark room with projected video in a vertical format similar to a painting, and about the size of an altarpiece. I'm not sure whether the fuzzyness of the projection is part of Viola's intention or because of the limitations of the presentation (I kept wanting to get it in better focus -- kept longing for a super high definition screen). However.

It is an intensely exciting piece of art. Each minute hand movement, each touch, each laugh and glance gains significance and increasing mystery as you continue to watch (I sat through it twice). Actions in the foreground are strangely mirrored in the background. Colors and shapes are simple and specific and seem to have deep significance. A third woman arrives and whispers something kept from us and from the older woman's companion. Emotion! Drama! Horror? Wonder? What? The older woman's companion seems awkwardly left out, perhaps jealous. The wind arrives. The scene continues to play out. You are thoroughly engaged, time has slowed to a medieval crawl.

And that's what is most interesting about the pairing of the Viola piece with the other exhibits. The whole Arts and Crafts movement was about handmade-ness, craft, slowing down to a pre-industrial pace. Yet no matter how slow the pace goes, the viewer's brain keeps churning and churning, looking for connections and meaning.

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