Video art has always posed problems in a gallery setting. It takes time to see and absorb, and -- all too often -- it isn't worth the standing time, especially when videos and television can be watched much more comfortably at home.
In her latest video installation at Washington Project for the Arts, titled "Listening: A Video Novel in Three Parts," Washington artist-photographer-filmmaker Margot Starr Kernan vaporizes these problems (except viewer resistance) by providing a piece so seductive, so absorbing, that time spent within it leaves the visitor with the sense of having passed an hour with a good book, rather than with moving pictures.
It is no small accomplishment. But then Kernan's is no small talent.
One enters the installation through a curtain of pure white (Kernan's signature color) to find a semi-darkened room, dappled light on dapple-gray walls. Three video monitors, each with related but different images, suggest three "stations" -- one with two chairs in a cozy arrangement; a second to be viewed from a mattress that has been neatly made up as a child's bed, complete with tattered teddy bear; and another for standing. In the corner, an open closet door with a tie hanging over the doorknob reinforces other clues suggesting a domestic setting that houses (or once housed) a mother, father and two daughters.
Not sure at first which monitor to watch -- and it really doesn't matter -- one begins to absorb the interplay of images from all three: a rocket launch; a large, empty house, filled with light and memories, in the American suburbs; palm trees; an atomic blast; young children seemingly running away from the house in their nightgowns; two women talking.
Soon the desire to sit down, or recline on the bed, overtakes. I headed for the chair first, picked up a set of earphones (provided at each station), and watched and listened as the memory of the mother emptied itself onto the screen. "Last night I dreamed I went back in time, back to the '50s in California, and the Cold War ... the nuclear wind blew in from the Pacific. The missiles were ready. My children. My husband went to work every day. He got out. I shouted poetry at the walls."
We find ourselves wandering through the empty, light-struck house, a house of memory, looking out the windows at the trees, listening as she speaks so poetically of her fears and isolation, and her fantasy encounter with a real-estate man who talks with her about poetry. "I wanted to sleep with him so bad," she says. And when she does, the image, Ozlike, is suddenly in color.
By now, the viewer is sufficiently lured into the story to curl up on the mattress and watch as the daughters, now adults, talk about life with Dad after the mother has left. It is all so subtle, the language so poetic, that the shocking revelation of incest somehow surfaces and stays submerged at the same time. The father gets his turn to remember these times, and his own seductive mother, on the third of these three tapes, but he is the least well-defined member of the family, the character who serves chiefly as contextual vehicle, sharing the images of the '50s with us as he watches the TV news,Fidel and high fashion, H-Bombs and Elvis.
Kernan, who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, created this work while an artist-in-residence at WPA, which set up its Media Arts Program to teach and assist area artists in producing and editing videos on up-to-date equipment at affordable rates. This admirable project was made possible by several grants -- from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and others, including The Washington Post Co. A brochure with an illuminating essay by Village Voice critic Elizabeth Hess accompanies the show. 'A Panorama of Mexican Art' The Mexican Cultural Institute, which opened this week in the elegant, historic manse -- formerly the Mexican Embassy -- at 2829 16th St. NW, is surely one of the most handsome new international gallery spaces in town. A private, nonprofit organization, it will serve as a clearing house for Mexican cultural activities in the United States, organize and circulate exhibitions, and eventually open a shop for Mexican crafts. The inaugural show, "A Panorama of Mexican Art," sets a high standard one can only hope will be continued. (There is even a place to park behind the building, off 15th Street.)
Borrowed largely from private collections in Mexico -- a rare treat in itself -- the show includes a varied selection of 50 paintings, works on paper and a few sculptures (by Francisco Zuniga), many of museum quality. There are works by artists we know -- such as Rufino Tamayo, Juan O'Gorman and Frida Kahlo -- and by the great muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. There are also some wonderful works by artists at least some of us knew nothing of, notably Manuel Gonzalez Serrano, who made strange still lifes that are secretly alive, and the delightful Antonio Ruiz, known as "El Corcito" (the little Corsican), whose 1937 painting, a bit of social comment titled "Summer," depicts a couple in peasant garb looking wide-eyed into the window of a shop showing the latest beach fashions.
Overall, the show sets out to trace the realist tradition through many styles and eras in Mexican art, from a lovely little 1905 landscape with volcanoes, "Valle de Mexico" by Jose Maria Velasco, to a selection of paintings by five varied contemporary painters, chief among them Luis Valsoto, who paints chunky nudes howling at the moon, along with other odd and witty subjects, such as "Shadow Playing with its Dog." There is also one contemporary photographer on view, Lourdes Almeida, whose series "What the Sea Left Me" attempts (and often succeeds) in transforming nudes on a beach into fantasy images.
When Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari officially opened the institute this week, he said its goal was "to begin a new era of respect and friendship in our relations with the United States." We could surely use a new era. For decades, gringos have been encouraged, both by their own narrow point of view and by mediocre contemporary shows sponsored by the Organization of American States to see Central and South America as an artistic monolith, one big place with a lot of derivative abstraction and too much surrealism.
There have been exceptions, of course -- especially at the recently re-envigorated Museum of Modern Art of Latin America, which is still, unfortunately, one of the undiscovered treasure-troves of Washington. Going country by country -- starting, it appears, with Mexico -- our view is bound to be widened and enriched. Listening: A Video Novel in Three Parts, by Margot Starr Kernan, at WPA, 400 Seventh St. NW, through June 30.
A Panorama of Mexican Art, at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW, through Aug. 11.