New York

Owen Land

Few supermarket icons exert the fascination of the Land O Lakes butter box. At once an old-fashioned vision of the American Eden and a funky pop M. C. Escher, the Land O Lakes trademark is a buckskin-clad Indian maid kneeling ecstatically on a sun-dappled green hill above a tranquil expanse of blue water. This smiling Pocahontas is as resonant a figure as the Statue of Liberty; she seems to perch on the horizon, and the “o” of the logo that fills the sky tops her head like a halo. Between the braids that fall to her waist she’s holding a box of Land O Lakes butter, on which, of course, a miniature version of the identical Indian maid is displayed, presumably offering another box of butter, and so on in an infinite regression.

With the strategic redeployment of the Indian maid’s bare knees, the Land O Lakes box has been traditionally transformed into mildly ribald collage; in his 17-minute videotape The Box Theory, 1984, Owen Land is somewhat more spiritual. Land treats his version of the icon to a rapid succession of seamless zooms, appropriately accompanied by a looped Philip Glass organ doodle. Art-historically, The Box Theory is pure ’60s, its kozmic rush equally suggesting hardcore minimo-structuralism, droning psychedelia, and Pop art. But this is not to say that its pleasures are purely contextual: the tape is as visceral as Joan Jonas Vertical Roll, 1972. The images infinite regression invites exploration of its depth, yet Land’s zoom is so overwhelming it’s impossible to focus one’s attention. You start out trying to catch the various hiccupping details—mainly the split-second changing expression of a girl who is sticking her head through the flat backdrop—and end up losing yourself in the mandalic flow, trancing out under the ridiculous concussive cornucopia of the onrushing butter boxes.

Owen Land is in fact the latest incarnation of filmmaker George Landow; that The Box Theory signals Landow’s rebirth as a video artist is signaled by his sly substitution of “Land O Land” for “Land O Lakes.” Landow’s best-known films, produced during the 1968–72 heyday of structural film, are his parodies of classroom instructional movies and TV commercials. Although his “No Sir, Orison.”, 1976, is set in a supermarket (where, for three minutes, a fellow kneels in the aisle and issues a melodious prayer), the films that The Box Theory most closely recalls are those of his first, tactile/materialist period, which culminated with the blankly self-descriptive Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Dirt Particles, Sprocket Holes, Etc., 1966, and the somewhat more action-packed Diploteratology or Bardo Follies, 1967. Both, like The Box Theory, are closely looped commercial images of women designed to defamiliarize the whole phenomena of movies through aggressively minimalist repetition.

As Landow’s early films focused on the physical stuff of cinema, Land’s early work could be said to have a critical relation to television (and video art), linking serial trance music with crass product familiarity and the presumed hypnotic effect of TV commercials. But The Box Theory is too successful a Phil Glass illustration to make anyone uneasy. Landow’s last films used his pugnacious conversion to Christianity as a way of deflating avant-garde pretensions. Why is he buttering us up now?

J. Hoberman