About halfway through a marathon session of videotapes by Ilene Segalove, I found myself beginning to count the number of times she appears lounging in her bathrobe. At the still center of her video universe is the upper-middle-class home of her parents, a comfortable place that's devoid of emotion, stress or more than desultory activity. In this cozy habitat, TV programs replace the complex interactions of the real world with steady companionship and metered doses of information.
At Laguna Art Museum, "Ilene Segalove: Why I Got Into TV and Other Stories" (to July 8) presents an overview of 18 years of the Los Angeles artist's video, audio and two-dimensional work, in which she presents what appears to be a bland, bright, cocoon-wrapped vision of suburban California life. Even her reflections and conclusions have the superficial ring of newscaster happy-talk.
Yet the overriding subject Segalove pursues with such perky vengeance is the way people in a media age try to come to grips with what's real and what's fake, and the helpless feeling of being caught in an endless sitcom.
Although Segalove stopped making videotapes in 1987, her identity as an artist remains linked to the medium she began using in 1972, when it was still in its technical infancy. In her earliest tape, "Coal Confession," the motionless camera assumes a quasi-godlike form, peering down at the curving surface of her face as she explains how she received an A-plus-plus on an elementary school report she plagiarized.
A year later, the camera becomes a stand-in for Segalove-the-observer as her sister points out salient features of the new addition on her house. The sister--who shares with Segalove's mother an unnervingly natural, if affectless, manner before the camera--talks and gestures in ways that look more like TV commercials than real life.
By 1987, when Segalove made "My Puberty,"--which deals with such topics as junior high boys, buying a bra and the movie "Gidget Goes Hawaiian"--she was able to juggle diverse presentational modes with aplomb. The tape veers in and out of amateur drama club farce, "Meet Mr. Wizard"-style demonstration and close-up views of actors gesturing or leaning into the viewer's space, in the style of aggressive TV commercials.
The same disjunctive approach is mirrored in Segalove's coolly post-feminist outlook. Despite her emphasis on the experiences and private worlds of women--primarily herself and her mother (in the "Mom Tapes")--the artist draws no conclusions.
Watching her mother idly point out the features she likes in her vast home, you can sympathize with her as an "empty-nester" or be irritated at her insulated life of privilege. Her assertive replies to a barrage of questions from Ilene about where to buy consumer goods suggest an ironic recasting of the feminist belief that women's knowledge is often devalued by the world at large.
Humor is Segalove's most precious natural resource. Yet her light touch can be a way of denying and deflecting the real terrors of life--just as her familiar-sounding childhood memories have a way of bathing the thirtysomething viewer in gleeful reminiscence instead of prompting fresh thoughts or observations. The few dark moments that emerge in the videos seem weirdly out of context, like her college lover's death from self-imposed starvation (in "The Riot Tapes: A Personal History").
In her recent audio pieces, Segalove returns to some of her familiar autobiographical themes, sometimes editing in amusing sound bites from other people. But without the leavening of stylized visual effects, these programs can be cloyingly lightweight.
Segalove's most incisive work happens when she takes a look at the patterns of other human lives besides her own. Many of these investigations are carried out in her conjunctions of "found" photographs, texts and other elements.
Unlike other students of conceptual artist John Baldessari, Segalove makes art about people and the way they feel about the world, rather than about the way the world is put together. And yet the text and found-photo pieces, like "Today's Program: Jackson Pollock, 'Lavender Mist' "--in which airline passengers raptly "watch" the painting, reproduced where the movie screen should be--intersect teasingly with more outwardly cerebral forms of contemporary art.
Sure, it's funny to think of a captive audience obliged to stare at the famous abstract painting. And yet the piece also seems to be about what it means to watch or look at something--why we look at a painting (even a so-called "action" painting) in a different way than we look at a film. As it turns out, Segalove is up to some serious fun. Hats off to museum director Charles Desmarais for putting lots of it in one place.
"Why I Got Into TV and Other Stories: The Art of Ilene Segalove" continues through July 8 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $2 general, $1 for students and seniors, free for children under 12. Information: (714) 494-6531.