Visual Arts

Sparallax Universe

When four pieces by a single artist can make me question the way I see the entire world, I know I'm seeing terrific art. "Vantage Point," four installations by Dan Collins at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, is such an exhibition. Part of the show's pleasure is that it doesn't hit one over the head with significance immediately. Appreciating the work is a matter of process.

When I looked at the first installation, "Re: St. Jerome and the Problem of Translation," quite frankly, I didn't get it. I saw a white, sculptural form that looks rather like an elongated cow skull mounted on a dark red wall. Beside the form is a bookshelf filled with 33 Bibles in various translations, everything from Chinese to German, from the New American Standard to "The Source." A video monitor, which displays a grinning human skull, acts as a bookend.

Something to do with death and religion, I thought, and walked on.
When I looked at the second installation, "U2," I was amused. A metal strip runs the length of a dark green wall. Several wing shapes and airplane parts are mounted on the ends of jointed white tubes and protrude from the metal strip on the wall. At one end of the strip is a small, closed-circuit video camera; at the other end is a video monitor.

When I looked in the monitor, I saw myself looking at a military plane. I realized that the camera at the other end was placed so that its perspective assembled all the airplane parts into a whole. Of course, I had to go back to the other end, stick my head in front of the camera and peer down its line of vision to see the assembled parts resolved into the whole. I smiled to myself at the idea of gallery visitors peering along walls to see art instead of standing in front of square canvases.

When I had taken in the whole of the third piece, I was amazed. "Semiotics in Paradise" seems to produce one of art's classic images out of almost nothing, creating the Biblical Eve from a blob and a hand.

How it works is complicated. A wall covered with gray graphite swirls and markings is broken up by what looks like big white blob. At the corner of that wall, a well-drawn forearm and hand offer an apple. At the other corner, a short gallery wall sports Durer's famous images of Adam and Eve accepting the apple from the snake. In this version, however, only the outline of Eve remains. Walk around the wall and the wonder occurs. There is Eve, perfectly rendered on a video monitor.

What has happened is that a closed- circuit video camera has translated the white blob and the hand with the apple into Durer's figure. The way it has been done, however, no matter how close you maneuver your face to the gray wall, you will not be able to see what the camera sees. It seems a perceptual miracle.

The magic is the result of "anamorphosis." The term refers to a drawing which presents a distorted image that appears in natural form only under certain circumstances and from certain vantage points. All four of Collins' pieces depend on anamorphosis. (The fourth installation translates seemingly random scratch marks on a green triangle into an excellent outline of the United States of America.) "Semiotics in Paradise," however, is by far the most sophisticated piece both in terms of technique and content.

Collins' installations evoke tantalizing questions about the nature of perception and human knowledge. How can we know what is real if we cannot trust our eyes and our other senses to collect data? What is our knowledge based on if our perception is unreliable? How can we believe what we only think we know? Under these circumstances, how can we move with any certainty from the physical realms of food and clothing to the abstractions of knowledge?

"Re: St. Jerome and the Problem of Translation" suggests that death, like the Bible, comes in many forms; some we can recognize and translate, others we may not know as they cross our paths. And, of course, the piece asks, how can there be one "literal" truth, when the Bible is now read almost universally in translation? So, too, "Semiotics in Paradise" queries our abilities to recognize "evil" when we cannot even identify a drawing on the wall for what it truly is. "U2" suggests that technology is ultimately a question of assemblage rather than a matter of vision.

And what does it mean that you and I, the viewers, can step in and out of the video images created? When one man reached toward the white blob on the wall, his hand also was touching Eve's white flesh. "Vantage Points" is the kind of exhibition that demands something more than words on a page. These installations require interaction. They have to be experienced in person, and they should not be missed. After all, how often does art turn our literal vision of the world around?

Hair is a symbol of power and sexuality in mythology, literature, religion and popular culture. Just think of Samson, Medusa, and Elvis. It also is a way of showing individuality, which is why convicts and new military recruits get their heads shaved. Hair is a billion-dollar growth industry in this country, but for Muriel Magenta, a hairdo also can be sculpture. "Coiffure Carnival," Magenta's exhibition at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, explores hair as the subject matter of art through the media of sculpture, painting and video. The concept of a hairdo as serious art sounds outrageous, and appropriately, Magenta's artworks are at their best when they are at their most outrageous. "La Pompadour: In Defense of a Hairdo" (1983) is the earliest and strongest piece in the exhibit. The gigantic burgundy head surmounted by an equally immense wig coiffured in the pompadour style had to be patted down to fit under the gallery's twelve-foot ceiling. The head is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with concertina wire.

Magenta sees the piece as a monumental, totemic icon to hair style as sculpture. "It's like a big, pagan idol. It's on wheels like something they would pull down the street," she says. Magenta also points out that in our culture such personal extravagance is always under attack, so the fence is intended as a barrier to those who would destroy individuality. In her video art piece, "In Defense of a Hairdo," a "Pink Brigade" of hairdresser-artists defend the wig head from the insidious attacks of green fog.

Another amusing piece is the "Comb for the Ultimate Doo," a ten-foot high, gold, purple and rose hair comb that casts a lightning-shaped shadow of curly blond and brown hair. The irony of the piece is that a mere comb should carry the power and punch of lightning. As Magenta says, "If you have a hairdo disaster, that puts you in a definitely less than happy mood."

In all honesty, who won't admit that a bad haircut is worth at least a day's depression and repeated scowls in the mirror? It's true for most of us, from men with thirty-year-old crew cuts who say they couldn't care less to feminists who believe that ideals of feminine beauty are at the heart of women's oppression.

Yes, hair influences our mental state and has been used symbolically throughout history, but these two facts alone are not enough to make this exhibit work. While the giant wig head and comb in a room of blue and magenta lights are great fun, other pieces are less successful and less amusing.

Several colorful, acrylic paintings and photographic prints based on computer- generated images of human heads with Afros and Cleopatra hair styles seem throwbacks to the Sixties. The abstract pieces of painted conduit wire curling out like permed hair have a fun formal appeal, but form alone does not carry several other sculptures of hairdos mounted on abstract shapes.

For such an exhibit, the artist must overcome all the little voices in our heads which say a hairdo should not be that significant a part of life. To do so, the work needs more substance and content to carry off completely the concept of hairdo as art. The contexts for meaning and symbolism which the artist intends (such as Samson and Medusa) need to arise more explicitly from the work itself. The notion of individuality expressed through external appearance could also be explored with greater depth in the two- and three- dimensional pieces.

"Coiffure Carnival" is an amusing show and an interesting one in terms of its aspirations and unusual subject matter, but ultimately its successes are limited. "Vantage Points" by Dan Collins continues at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts through May 20.

"Coiffure Carnival" by Muriel Magenta continues at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts through May 27. Located at 7383 Scottsdale Mall, the gallery is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; and Thursday until 8 p.m.

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Pamela Portwood