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Hate the Statement at "Transcendental Smoothie"

But don't hate the art

Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand hate artist statements — really, who doesn't? At the collaborative wife/husband team's Web site, www.maryandstephan.com, Hillerbrand likens writing one to going to the dentist: "You know you have to do it, but it doesn't feel good at all," he wrote. My question is, "Then why do it?"

For their current exhibition, "Transcendental Smoothie," at Lawndale Art Center, a perfectly serviceable biography is provided, perhaps written by Lawndale staff, to give viewers a sense of the two artists' history, process and aesthetic intentions behind the work on display (which is spectacular, by the way, as a visual feast). Then the couple had to go and ruin it with a statement.

First, let me repeat: "Transcendental Smoothie" is a visual feast, literally. For the exhibit's main work, Forced Fields, Magsamen and Hillerbrand have loaded the gallery with hanging translucent balloons, through which video is projected, creating spherical screens that display (among other things) one of their children making star-shaped cookies. The video is shot from under a sheet of Plexiglas, over which the child cuts a slab of dough with a cookie cutter. The dough itself adds another layer of transparency to the video, because the child is top-lighting it with a flashlight. It's a brilliant effect; occasionally we see the little girl's eye through the star-shaped hole left by the cookie cutter, and projected through the hanging balloons, it creates a warped starscape across the room. There's also footage of the child scraping a coil pattern through a mound of flour with her fingertip, kind of like an Etch A Sketch, again shot from under the piece of Plexiglas.

The images, emitted through four projectors in order to provide adequate coverage, create a lysergic world of childlike incorruptibility. The ever-present drone of crickets emphasizes a state of uninterrupted bliss.

The artists say the installation is about navigation and particularly the difficulty of navigating through daily life: job, art, marriage, politics and family politics. But there is nothing in this show that delves, in any meaningful way, into that theme. In fact, that's a really banal choice of raison d'être for such a lush and dazzling visual experience. So I'm going to go with the elegant words provided in their bio: "They make portraits of their everyday life that go beyond documentation because of innovative manipulations of time, image and material." If there's anything we as viewers "navigate" here, it's the space itself, the areas between the balloons with our bodies, and with our eyes the several projection surfaces.

Some serious thought and good taste went into the couple's decision to collaborate with Kirk Lynn, a playwright with a history of acclaimed works performed by Austin-based theater collective Rude Mechanicals, but here, Lynn's talents feel wasted. He provided lyrics for Too Many Things, a kind of video kaleidoscope set to music, but the words are indecipherable. Are we supposed to imagine there's some poetic force driving this piece because of Lynn's contribution? Here, the efforts of collaboration lack results.

Too Many Things is a mesmerizing visual. Taping off the projector lens, so that only a shard of light escapes, and obliquely aiming it through transparent plastic tubing creates a distorted, rainbow ripple effect, and it's nice and trippy. But the audio element adds little to accentuate the piece, if anything. The music and singing by Jenny Westbury feels tacked-on. But then, is that the joke of the title? If it's about constructing a piece of art that truly is "too many things," the impact of that idea is lost in this setting, even though it's a dubious idea to begin with.

Let's Get Married is another collaboration with Lynn that, again, misses the mark with results. In three separate frames, again shot from underneath Plexiglas, Magsamen and Hillerbrand devour slices of bread, peanut butter and jelly. They lap it all up using only their mouths, smearing it and smushing it all over the glass. They even create faces with the bread slices, using jelly for eyes and peanut butter patterns for hair. Then the video reverses, so it looks like they're regurgitating it back out. It's really fun to watch, and it goes along with the childlike feel of the entire show — getting messy, making cookies, balloons, Etch A Sketches, PB&J.

But I'm not sure why Magsamen and Hillerbrand feel they need to augment their imagery with spoken words, especially the uninspired gimmick that Lynn joined forces with the artists to create. It's basically the words "peanut butter and jelly" plugged into different phrases, and read by a female voice: You can smell his peanut butter and jelly...every store I go to knows the only thing I want to buy is peanut butter and jelly...I'm writing a trilogy about peanut butter and jelly...In the beginning was the word and the word was good and the word was peanut butter and jelly...I will probably die peanut butter and jelly...on and on and on. It's just not necessary. And it adds a cacophony to the installation as a whole that muddies it somehow, like something as seemingly innocuous as an artist statement has the potential to cloud our vision. I wanted to turn off the music and the words and just look at the pictures and listen to the crickets.

 
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