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Not Your MTV

Andy Mann treats video like abstract art

Just a month or so ago, I was seated, much against my better judgment, on an inordinately large panel convened to discuss artists in the community, or the art community, or some such well-meaning topic. Doubtless there was among the 14 of us someone with something interesting to say, but we never found out for certain, because one of the panelists mistakenly believed that he had been invited there to deliver a lecture, which I mentally titled "On the Failure of Our Museums to Serve Local Artists, and the Incorrigibility Thereof." This distinguished guest (I know you're wondering, so I'll just tell you: It was artist Bert Long) rambled on and on along a less than original route over this tired and downtrodden territory, taking a break in the bivouac of a claim that he was concerned about younger artists, not himself. The rest of us assumed a stoic air.

The whole thing was recorded on video just as many Houston art events over the past two decades have been: with a camera operated by Andy Mann. Those who dared to interject were quickly beaten back by Bert's sonorous soliloquy. Except Andy, who interrupted, and from his half-bent posture behind the tripod admonished Bert for a good long while. Everyone perked up at this, and Andy didn't stop. Eventually Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe got up from his seat at the table, walked over to the video camera and swiveled it around to point directly at Andy's face. Without missing a beat, Andy shifted his aim so that he was delivering the tail end of his diatribe -- the message of which boiled down to "Quit whining, Bert" -- straight into the camera.

I had never seen a person in a documentary role break through the "fourth wall" in such a manner. That Andy Mann did so without pause or compunction says something not just about him as a person, but also about how he views his chosen medium. To Andy, turnabout is perfectly fair play. The video camera is not a barrier that divides operator and object. He's not a predator; he's not trying to "capture" anything with his camera.

At times Andy Mann's glowing video pyramid looks like some post-Aztec gift to the gods.
At times Andy Mann's glowing video pyramid looks like some post-Aztec gift to the gods.

Instead, his work bounces and spins, undulates and sparkles. Known for his Video Christmas Tree, now going on its tenth year in Tranquility Park, and video kaleidoscopes on view at Aurora Picture Show, No tsu oH and the Children's Museum, Mann has been Houston's video artist of choice for some time. Still, Mann calls his career a "huge failure," and a call from DiverseWorks earlier this year asking him to do a one-man show -- rare for that venue -- did little, in his eyes, to make up for that.

Mann, who has pancreatic cancer, refused to memorialize himself in a retrospective. Instead, he asked for enough video monitors to realize a large-scale version of his multiple-screen abstractions. The result, "VideomusicVideo," centers on a stunning stepped pyramid of 25 televisions, all flashing the same raw video run through different effects. (By the time this review is printed, the pyramid may have morphed into something different because of the arrival of ten more monitors.)

There are other works in the show as well. Hidden in the narrow gap behind the wall that provides a backdrop for the pyramid, Andy installed an anti-monument to the life -- and storage problems -- of an artist. "Dead Art Gulch" is a junkyard of paintings and objects that failed to sell, warped in the rain or otherwise fell apart. Two of Andy's major pieces from the '70s, he notes, were stored in a basement for years and finally discarded. But the pièce de résistance of "VideomusicVideo" is the pristine, glowing pyramid.

Except for that, DiverseWorks's huge central gallery has the appealing look of a raw, haphazard studio space, with a camera, tables full of equipment and cables and, in one corner, some electric guitars. There are also a couple of modified turntables on which Mann has placed his paintings, giant versions of those "spin art" craft paintings you used to be able to make at places like AstroWorld. The workaday look is due to the fact that Mann planned to create most of the video for the show during the show, in the gallery, shooting live action in front of the pyramid to create endless repetitions (he has shot some, but not as much as he'd have liked).

Mann says his make-do attitude is "anti-imagination," and by that he means there are no characters, no plot and no story. Part of the rigor of his work is using what's in front of him, with few attempts to structure elements beforehand. "[There's one] thing I've never had, and that's a production budget," he says. It's a perfectly Andy Mann idea: to make a video that consists of himself playing the soundtrack of the video on the guitar, sitting in front of a monitor showing himself playing the soundtrack of the video on the guitar. Out of almost nothing, he creates images that ripple with the suggestion of infinity.

The rest of what he feeds the glowing pyramid is equally stunning. In self-referential moments, the screens flash pictures of themselves, the pyramid looking like some post-Aztec gift to the gods. On December 1, Day Without Art, Mann showed a long, intricate video that flashed a picture of Bill Graham, a Houston gallerist who died of AIDS. "Bill! Bill! Bill!" Andy can be heard shouting, without affect, on the soundtrack.

That instant of restrained sentiment is embedded in a stream of lovely pictures that range from slightly to very abstract, hiccuping in a rhythm reminiscent of the throbbing of single-cell organisms, silent supernovas, swimming sperm. In his images of light sprinkled on water, the moon shot through flames, even the copper-colored fountain towers of Tranquility Park, Mann has captured something primally biological, or bio-geological. That theme is carried over into the video kaleidoscopes, two of which are on view. When you put your head into the hexagonal tube of mirrors, the video screen at the end is reflected in such a way that it seems like a globe, a roiling planet that has not yet hardened into earth.

In the early '70s, after graduating from New York University's School of Film and Television, Andy became part of the first wave of artists to experiment with video. Some were convinced the medium would revolutionize art, and maybe television as well. Others complained, as Allan Kaprow did in Artforum, that video art was simply an "old wine" in a "new bottle," that the art produced was not living up to the radical promise of its medium.

Early video art came in two varieties. First, and most obvious, was the theatrical, narrative sort, often used by performance artists to preserve their work and reach a broader audience. The other focused on techniques unique to video. The vertical hiccup that occurs when your TV reception's not right, for example, became a formal element. The idea that video could be expressive in itself, rather than as a way of documenting action, is analogous to the idea that underlies abstract painting: that paint need not be solely dedicated to representing the world outside the window.

Basically Mann is the video equivalent of an abstract painter, and he has come as close as anyone to making something that's entirely born of video's capabilities. Near the outset of his career, he learned to flip and reverse images and began using four monitors, arranged two by two, as a basic unit, refracting single images into balletic four-way symmetries. After some early short videos such as One-Eyed Bum, which still gets included in video exhibits, Andy stopped framing his images as if they'd be viewed on a single monitor and started framing them with a diagonal emphasis, the better to fit the "X Matrix" (when oriented a certain way, the same image displayed on four monitors forms a central X.) Though he did tape real-world images, he cared more for aesthetic qualities than subject matter -- one four-monitor piece that was shown at the Whitney Biennial had two strings of images, one light (filmed outside), the other dark (filmed inside).

A Soho scenester, Andy was represented by a top gallery, Leo Castelli, and says the video curator there told him that he could go far if he would take himself seriously. "That turned out to be a problem," says Andy. "I just didn't consider myself star material." Instead, in 1976, Andy retreated to Houston, where his friend Jim Harithas was curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum. Here, he expanded on and perfected the grid concept, using multiple monitors in different configurations, such as the Video Christmas Tree.

As much as Mann's work depends on cheesy effects such as colorization and making images negative, he doesn't embrace the glibber aspects of video theory. He doesn't, for example, show you a hundred things at once, as if that is somehow better than one thing at a time. Rather, he shows you one thing a hundred times, a hundred different ways, fashioning a new, bigger meaning instead of shattering an image into fragmented messages. I haven't seen such good television since James Turrell hid a TV behind a scrim at the CAM and had us watch its reflected glow. If video didn't revolutionize art, Mann at least proves its legitimacy as a medium, and he does so by using it to amplify the flow of life in a way that, oddly for such a mouthy self-saboteur, drives home the point that it goes on and on.

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