I went to see the new Brian Eno art exhibit at its opening on Saturday night, arriving about 6 PM. There was supposed to be some sort of gallery walk-through, and I was expecting a big crowd based on Eno's celebrity in the music world, so I was a little surprised to see only 40, or so, undergrad students milling around on the lawn. Things definitely looked very low key.
I walked into the gallery, or rather the museum, at California State University Long Beach. To enter you have to shove your way through some heavy blackout curtains in the doorway, which seemed a bit fussy, since the first space consisted of eleven small, colorful digital prints. This was a beautifully proportioned space with bright red walls and dramatic spotlighting of each work . The prints were signed in 1/50, Brian Eno. If a famous musicians name weren't attached to them what I think? "These are handsome, and facile, and there is some variety from one piece to the next. I am however unpleasantly distracted by the prints that have little cartoon characters scribbles in them. That seems trite."
The installation and lighting of these pieces is impeccable. But on some level, don't the bright red walls feel like a gimmick? If I saw these 11 pieces hung close together on a white wall, what would I think of them? Probably just that they have rich color and look expensively printed, and have been designed by someone very capable in using illustrator. Nicely decorative, but really, not a lot of meaningful content.
Next, you enter a very large 'L'- shaped space, with charcoal gray walls, and an array of flat-panel TVs in a sort of daisy pattern on the end wall. There are six dark gray sofas which are filled with people, respectfully watching what turns out to be a slowly morphing display of designs and colors on the 12 screens. This is what Mr. Eno means by that title: "77 million paintings". It's very colorful and pretty. I enjoy the slowness of the shifts in color and patterns, which is like going to a demanding but rewarding avant-garde film. On one level, it's great that people are willing to sit there for half an hour in order to experience it, when they might more too typically spend Saturday night at slambang Hollywood film.
But what does this mean, I spend about 20 minutes with it, and I can't for the life of me really discern any cogent message. I recall a critic's line from 30 years ago in which he described the work of a San Diego-based pattern painter as "the thinking man's tablecloths."
Also, when I spend time watching evolving colors and patterns on a video display I can't help but compare it to the work of one of my favorite artists, Jennifer Steinkamp. No contest. Jennifer's work is rousing, technically brilliant, sometimes metaphorical, other times just so jazzy and precisely installed that it leaves me with a warm glow thinking all is well in the art world.
While the Brian Eno works are beautifully installed, I can't discern any intended meaning. Maybe his point is that intention is of no interest, and that it's best to let the machine generate both the sequence of colors, and the music which is part of this experience. I've enjoyed his collaborations with Talking Heads, and in the 70's respected his ambient music; not that I listened to it for days on end. Maybe I am missing something in this slowly evolving video piece, because it reflects his ambient aesthetic to which I never felt a great connection. I also find myself comparing what's on these flat panel screens to the large show Bill Viola had at the Getty several years ago. While I found that show a little grandiose, there were individual pieces in which you've viewed an actor emoting in slow motion and it was very evocative, albeit cool in a sort of pseudo scientific way.
It might be, that the Eno exhibit is better experienced without the crowd. It's up until December 13th, so I'll give it another go, and see if my perception changes.