An Artist's 'Exercise' In Tilting at Minimalism

Looking like a row of fluorescent windmills, Stephan Schulz's
Looking like a row of fluorescent windmills, Stephan Schulz's "Exercise Machine" gets a workout by the artist himself. The installation and performance at Meat Market Gallery are a clever and gentle tweak of '60s-era minimalism. Meanwhile, District artist Reuben Breslar uses blue painter's tape, below, to trace abstract shapes on the floor, walls and ceiling in Meat Market's rear room in a swipe at illusionistic painting. (Photos Courtesy Meat Market Gallery)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Young artists have long pilloried their elders. For some contemporary artists, the ideologues of 1960s-era minimalism continue to play the role of disappointing forebears.

Today's artists see them with crystalline hindsight: They know that minimalism simply replaced an art of expression (Jackson Pollock, say) with an art of repression (Donald Judd, say).

In a complex and clever sidewalk performance and installation called "Exercise Machine," young German artist Stephan Schulz demonstrates that he's got minimalism's number.

Yet his work isn't a dressing-down; it's the smartest and most gentle-hearted impudence a young artist could summon. At Meat Market Gallery, videos of Schulz's sidewalk performances run alongside the objects he uses to make them in a show rich with humor and whimsy.

The performances go like this: Schulz dons a white jogging suit to which he attaches colored cables, wrist to ankle. When the artist moves, he sends data to a computer hooked up to five identical machines. Looking something like authoritarian robotic windmills, the machines all feature a fluorescent tube that rotates on a nearly eight-foot pole.

As the artist moves -- he favors a style of stilted marching that calls to mind a Monty Python sketch -- he resembles a calisthenics instructor leading five eager, if awkward, pupils.

The video of these public performances points to various comical facts of contemporary life -- from the artificiality of our exercise regimens to the blinders we wear on the streets (hardly a glance was cast by pedestrians making their way past Schulz's spectacle). And then, of course, there are the ghosts of the 1960s, which are everywhere.

Can an artist really use a fluorescent lamp without conjuring Dan Flavin? Here, Flavin's bulb installations come to life by their virtual attachment to Schulz's body. Forget about trying to erase the artist's hand, Schulz is saying, let's use the whole body (just as the artists of the 1970s did in their own messy reaction to minimalism). As Schulz's body softens the windmills' presence, we're prodded toward a conclusion: That the 1960s creative revolution was just another kind of fascism.

In Meat Market Gallery's rear room, District artist Reuben Breslar takes his own swipe at the annals of art history, though his focus is painting and, specifically, the tradition of illusionistic painting.

At Meat Market, Breslar riffs on precedents without repeating them. He traces blue lines into abstract shapes with sharp angles; the distorted geometries move across floor and wall or wall to ceiling as if the room were a single unified canvas. They send us on a chase to find a familiar figure while making the room look by turns much smaller and much larger than it actually is.

Further complicating matters of perception is Breslar's material. His lines are made with the blue tape used to mark off edges when painting a room. When you buy it at Home Depot, the tape is meant to keep paint from making a mark; here it is the mark.

Art Meets Tech

"Speculative Data and the Creative Imaginary: Shared Visions Between Art and Technology" at the National Academy of Sciences.

Whew! If this group exhibition's title doesn't stop you in your tracks, then its complicated viewer-art interaction might. Why recommend it, then? Because it offers a rare chance to explore the outer reaches of artmaking, the edges overlapping neuropsychology, aerospace, urban planning and systems theory. The show's artists are researchers in the world's top university technology departments; its curator, Pamela Jennings, comes from Carnegie Mellon's art and human computer interaction program.

If a theme can be teased from this techfest, it's that computers can bridge the gulfs in human relations. Thecla Schiphorist exhibits three patchwork skirts embedded with sensors that, if used as directed, would assist a roomful of skirt wearers in synchronizing their breathing.

An accompanying video details how the technology works. Yet the earnest voice-over begs questions both philosophical (why bother coordinating inhalations and exhalations?) and practical (why can't participants synchronize by talking to each other and wearing whatever they like?). That face-to-face interaction would prove a more efficient option seems of ancillary interest.

It's best to approach this exhibition's many interactive opportunities with an open mind. Mice and monitors accompany almost every artist's work but interfaces are limited and sometimes mystifying -- even after consulting the accompanying double-sided, single-spaced "Directions for Interactivity" handout.

In a show that favors Big Ideas over practical matters and proffers more questions than it answers, rewards are few. Still, new art is rarely palatable to eyes accustomed to the familiar. And I don't doubt we'll be seeing more of this down the line.

Stephan Schulz and Reuben Breslar at Meat Market Gallery, 1636 17th St. NW, Monday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., Sunday noon-3 p.m., 202-328-6328, to Aug. 12.

Speculative Data and the Creative Imaginary: Shared Visions Between Art and Technology at the Rotunda Gallery, National Academy of Sciences, 2100 C St. NW, Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-334-2436, to Aug 24.

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