Bill Viola: Passions

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In a conversation with a friend of mine a number of years ago, we shared our skepticism about video art. Through the years, we grew accustomed to seeing poor-quality images shot on less than a shoe-string budget, drowning in self-indulgence and dripping with self-importance. Since the '80s, video art rapidly expanded into the dominant form of contemporary art. At the last Venice Biennale, video artists easily outnumbered sculptors, painters and photographers.

Bill Viola: PortraitAnd then, something unexpected happened that converted me into an avid follower of video art - I saw the work of Bill Viola. I remember a dark room filled with the muffled sounds of splashing water. Videos of naked divers plunging into a pool were projected on several large screens around the room. It was poetic, confessional, and deeply moving. When, a few years ago, a traveling retrospective of Bill Viola's art arrived at LACMA it became a lovefest for me and big crowds of his fans. Amazingly versatile, Bill Viola expanded the possibility of video more than any other practitioner of this form of art. I think of him as part-sculptor, part-poet who, with the help of technology, explores the mystery of the subconscious.--

Bill Viola: Portrait"The Passions", his current exhibition at The Getty, presents new works of the last few years that take advantage of the newest technology - flat panel plasma-screens. The panels hang on the walls or stand on pedestals. The quality of the images and intensity of the colors are totally amazing.-

Bill Viola: PortraitThese days, Bill Viola uses professional actors who enact for him elaborate scenes of emotional anguish. The resulting videos are projected at an extremely slow speed, which magnifies every gesture and flicker of emotion. Inspired by early Renaissance devotional paintings, his new works pay homage to the Old Masters. Unfortunately, too much reverence, combined with over-the-top acting, produce an unintentional response. I was slightly embarrassed by the piety of the emotions, which, in some cases, verge on camp.-

In previous works, the artist was able to evoke the spirit of the Renaissance, as in his 1995 monumental piece "The Greeting" which was projected directly onto the gallery wall. Even after several viewings, I remained hypnotized by the extreme slow motion of three women approaching, greeting and embracing each other. In contrast, the new works come across as merely mimicking the Old Masters. And the latest technology, instead of enhancing and liberating his art, gives it the shiny, perfect look of an expensive commodity. Nothing in this new show at The Getty comes close to the simplicity and sincerity of the earlier works seen a few years ago at his travelling exhibition at LACMA.

It's amazing how many good artists experience a setback after a much-acclaimed retrospective of their work. But there is no doubt in my mind that the immensely talented Bill Viola will find a way out of his current crisis.

Bill Viola "The Passions"
January 24 - April 27, 2003
The Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1679
(310) 440-7300