Unlearning the Art of Seeing With Thater's 'Best Animals'

TIMES ART CRITIC

Diana Thater is an L.A.-based video installation artist whose work is currently on view at the MAK Center's Schindler House in West Hollywood. Titled "The best animals are the flat animals--the best space is the deep space," the four-part piece is at once a mildly engaging entertainment and a highly specialized exercise in praiseworthy but contradictory goals.

Thater's intentions don't reveal themselves to simple perusal but seem to be about a desire to change the way viewers see things. Each section occupies a different space. One projects an image of zebra skin on the walls of a concrete room interrupted by vertical slit windows. Glass is covered with colored, transparent plastic. The zebra pattern, animated to rearrange itself, stays fairly symmetrical, giving it an iconic, Rorschach-blot quality. A good deal of light entered the room on my visit, severely diluting the picture.

Combining the skin of an African animal with the neo-primitivism of an early classic L.A. house links Modernism to its revival of magical tribal art. By contrast, flattening the zebra pattern recalls an endless debate among painters. A group of flat-earth artists argues that using a painting to produce an illusion of depth is dishonest. A less doctrinaire bunch insists that illusion is fun, so if you can make a flat canvas look like a tunnelthrough space, why not?

The next section is amusing. A video monitor on the floor broadcasts a vignette of a bright farm day. A portly white-haired animal trainer leads a zebra rolling a barrel with its nose. The hapless animal is obliged to do tricks. After patiently posing on a stand, tipping a teeter-totter and doing a couple of curtsies, the zebra, fed up, bolts out of camera range, jerking the trainer along. Good. Served him right.

Mentally connecting this scene to the neo-primitive room, a scenario develops. Zebras, despite resemblance to horses, are notoriously resistant to domestication. Thater's piece now suggests a satire of questionable practices that pass for civilized.

The third section employs a trio of monitors. Each broadcasts an image of a trained white show horse bowing repeatedly in a misty arena. This might symbolize the zebra deprived of his stripes and thus now completely subservient to human will. The best way to make that point would be to line up the monitors and show the horses, so to speak, dancing like a chorus line.

Instead, video boxes are so arranged it's impossible to see if the horses are in sync, much less whether they are the same horse three times or three similar but separate animals. Thater appears to shift from a symbolic mode to an optical one.

The final section uses two monitors playing a scene in the L.A. Arboretum. Both evidently show the same tropical-forest foliage. In one version we see a camera crew lighting the scene. In the other the picture is empty of crew but appears fake due to its lighting. I saw no obvious link to previous sections.

Anyone with an art education would likely derive a variant reading similar to the above. Yet even visual literacy doesn't ward off a sense of confusion implicit in the piece. Reading the catalog only compounds the conundrum. Texts place importance on matters, from scenic locations to the fact that variations on the piece are currently on view in New York and Ohio. Essays deal with every intellectually fashionable subject, from cultural politics to animal rights. In short, even though Thater's goals are feasible, her method needs honing.

In art, it's probably impossible to do everything at once, particularly when the real intent is to alter the viewers' perceptual apparatus. Sixties psychedelic light shows managed a fair sense of organic disorientation toward a holistic vision. Light and Space artists pinpointed pure phenomena.

Unintentionally, I once induced a temporary perceptual alteration in myself. Visiting a museum, I contemplated a number of very fine old master paintings. Suddenly they looked like so much wallpaper, flat and pointless. Somehow I was looking with the eyes of someone who'd never seen a Western painting.

It was an awesome, intensely visceral lesson in how our very way of looking is an acquired cultural skill, like learning to read. What caused this disillusionment was, I suspected, connected to an experiment I'd undertaken in making an illusionistic shallow relief sculpture. I asked an artist who does such work regularly if he'd ever experienced such an odd reversal of vision. "Sure," he chuckled, "happens all the time."

So we can, as Thater would like, unlearn indoctrinated ways of seeing, but it requires directed concentration not readily apparent in this show.

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* "The best animals are the flat animals--the best space is the deep space," MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Schindler House, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood; through Jan. 17, (323) 561-1510.

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