Los Angeles

Jennifer Steinkamp


Jennifer Steinkamp’s installations frequently induce a level of immersion that is unusual, the familiar act of looking shading quickly into something more like swimming. The four works in her series “Orbit,” 2008–, for instance, are each like a fall in zero gravity. The matrices of branchlike tendrils and fluorescent leaves that make up the video projections blow, swirl, and rotate across two expansive perpendicular walls. But also, and very deliberately, the projections wash legibly across the body of the viewer, physically absorbing him or her into the installations. The spectator, then, occupies both positive and negative space: a black specter interrupting the projection, and a tableau onto which that image is projected. This thorough subsumption into the virtual space of these works effectively forecloses the possibility of distance— critical or otherwise—and instead holds out the possibility of a purely corporeal experience unencumbered by intellectual engagement.

Steinkamp’s pursuit of a phenomenology of techno-pleasure crystallizes most fully in pieces—like those from “Orbit”—that are composed of hypersynthetic computer-generated images used to describe a fantastic world with no discernible relationship to the reality inhabited by the viewer. The series is the “depiction of the celestial mechanics of a planet spinning through its year located in some solar system,” the artist writes on her website. “Various trees with their leaves and flowers are blown by a turbulent wind conveying the passage of time. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter form the year.” Deftly steering clear of referents that might require interpretation to unfold in tandem with the breezier processes of cognition, Steinkamp presents images that are wholly uncomplicated and seductive—some might say decorative—limiting her work radically.

Sharpie, 2009, however, represents a departure for the artist. The images that are the basis of the projection were, for the first time, rendered by Steinkamp’s own hand. As the title suggests, the work is based on sixty abstract forms executed with a Sharpie, scanned, and then incorporated into a disquieting animation that resembles a boundless field of worms crawling slowly over and around one another—an animate Brice Marden, perhaps. Where “Orbit” feels sanitized, benign, and bereft of association, Sharpie is unruly and ever so slightly abject, flirting with decoration, only to withhold that possibility. Steinkamp has landed on a mechanism that generates a state of perpetually deferred resolution—a quality that makes Sharpie formally arresting. On the level of analogy and association, the apparent autonomy of the slowly slithering lines and gentle swells against a black ground recalls for viewers the uncanny experience of looking at organisms through a microscope. This nod to the aesthetics of microbiology is reiterated by the obviously hand-drawn, almost organic quality of the lines; the fusion of the two lends an animate dimension to the work that distinguishes it from much of Steinkamp’s glossy, illusory oeuvre. If “Orbit” seduces and enchants, Sharpie beguiles and repels, suggesting that Steinkamp’s project has a life beyond the pleasure principle.

Christopher Bedford