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Tucked away in a converted garage behind a tastefully landscaped, midcentury home on a quiet street in Mar Vista, Jennifer Steinkamp’s studio suggests a strategically concealed mission-control center. Step through the door of the modest, freestanding structure and you’ll find yourself in a long, narrow, relatively non-descript workspace with several pieces of office furniture, one large computer monitor, a keyboard, a laptop and a line of windows looking out on the yard. Behind the partial wall that divides the space is a shadowy storage area housing, among other things, the bank of hard drives that hold Steinkamp’s life’s work. Linking the two spaces is a rectangular panel of unlabeled buttons that allows her to pull up the contents of any of these computers on the single monitor and to instantaneously jump among them.
With this sort of setup, you might imagine Steinkamp filtering cyber chatter for the CIA, monitoring wiretapped drug dealers, hacking into corporate infrastructures, or managing Internet porn sites. In fact, she’s sculpting.
She begins, by way of demonstration, with an empty, black screen. Maneuvering the cursor with a practiced hand through a dizzyingly complex series of menus and panels in Maya, an animation program, she pulls up the three-dimensional outline of an archetypal maple tree. One click and the tree begins to rotate; another, and it sways to an invisible wind; another, and each of the branches begins to wiggle individually. You can multiply the branches tenfold, or whittle them down to a few scrawny shoots. You can add maple leaves, oak leaves, aspen or poplar — scores or just a few, in virtually any color. The trees that encircled the ancient Yerebatan Cistern in Steinkamp’s 2003 installation at the Istanbul Biennial; the dancing “dervish” trees from her Lehmann Maupin show in New York in 2004; and the flowering vines that curtained the walls of ACME last year all began here, with the layering and manipulation of these basic, artificial forms.
A soft-spoken woman with a serious demeanor, clearly not given to self-promotion, Steinkamp makes it look easy. “You have all the elements here,” she says, pointing to the panels on the right of the screen. “Leaves, branches, the width of the trunk, color. You just decide what you want.” The distance between our little demonstration, however, and the dazzling sensory environments she ultimately creates is something like the distance between a child’s paint-by-number lighthouse scene and a full-fledged Turner seascape, as becomes clear when she flips to a work in progress — one piece of a panorama intended for projection at the recent Basel art fair — and the screen explodes in a joyous cacophony of color, with veil upon veil of slender vertical lines twisting and bouncing like go-go dancers. Her technological dexterity is considerable, to say the least, but she’s a sensualist at heart, and it’s her fusion of these two qualities that makes her work so visionary — and thrilling. I can think of few artists who’ve more radically altered my own perception of what was possible in a medium. Because Steinkamp translates the minutiae of pixels and logarithms into such lusciously consuming spectacles, her work appeals not merely to the eye or the mind, as most new media do, but to the entire body, giving the technology itself a visceral relevance.
The naturalistic imagery marks a shift from the abstraction that characterized her work up until the past few years, and the shift has changed her way of thinking about space. “The abstract work was more about ground: foreground and background,” she says. “It tended to dematerialize the architecture more because it became more integrated in the architecture, whereas the plants, the trees, are more like objects. They still interact with the architecture but not in the same way.”
Dazzling as these images are on the monitor in the studio, it’s this interaction that brings the work to life. “I mean, the architecture dematerializes the art too. Well, maybe not dematerializes but changes it. It’s one thing on the screen and it’s another projected into space. I always think of the projection as this in-between space, between representational and physical space. It’s not one or the other. It’s experience space.”
Steinkamp has a lot on her plate at the moment. At the top of the list is a midcareer survey that opened at the San Jose Museum of Art on July 1, for which she revisited many of her earlier works, updating them to current technological standards. Also in the works are a public project for the Community Redevelopment Agency involving a series of tall panels along the façade of an upcoming development at Hollywood and Vine (it incorporates flowers referenced in the films of those whose stars grace that stretch of the boulevard); a commission for a work that will be screened intermittently on several massive LED screens on the exterior of an auditorium in Dallas; and an indoor projection commissioned for a new branch of the Denver Art Museum, due to open this fall. This last piece, a working version of which she pulls up on the monitor as we talk, is something of a departure: not flowers or trees but sheaths of brightly colored, silklike fabric that cascade in gently rippling waves from the top to the bottom of the screen.
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