SANTA FE, N. Mex — All Art Is Virtual is the kind of catch-all title that made me wary even before I stepped into the dark and buzzing interior of Thoma Foundation’s new media space Art Vault. The nonprofit gallery’s website states that the exhibition “proposes that all art can provide a virtual reality experience — no special goggles required.”
I, too, dislike VR headsets (bad ergonomics aside, their aesthetic is iconically mortifying), but this theme sounds like an excuse to showcase pretty much anything in a new media collection. In that regard Thoma holds the goods, in vast archives that stretch back to some of the earliest examples of digital art. All Art Is Virtual features two dozen works spanning seven decades (its earliest entry is from 1962), but what’s the curatorial glue?
Mercifully, a sequence of narrative-driven works lends shape to an exhibition that has the potential to transcend its branding. A downtempo Nina Simone sets the tone, playing piano and crooning across 29 television screens in a pyramidal installation by Atlanta-based artist Paul Stephen Benjamin. The work is titled “Black is the Color” (2015) which is the lyric that echoes through it as three clips of Simone endlessly cycle. The singer’s drawn-out vocal steeps like tea, slowly resolving to the ear.
Nam June Paik’s 1989 work “Portable God,” a two-channel video installation enshrined in a 1950s television cabinet, is a psychedelic, calligraphy-covered altar to Allen Ginsburg, Elaine de Kooning, Confucius, and other cultural figures. Offerings such as rice and candles are poignantly perched on the piece.
An ornately framed flatscreen seamlessly loops Kent Monkman’s 2015 “video painting” “The Human Zoo,” which casts the Cree artist’s drag alter ego as a sideshow performer on the streets of 1850s Berlin. At the end of her frenetic dance to a drumbeat struck by a white male companion, she’s denied a share of the tips.
These works feel nearly cinematic, masterfully harnessing new media’s temporal nature; as they bloom, our understanding of them evolves and deepens in spine-tingling ways. In this vein, the exhibition’s pièce de résistance is “Inverso Mundus” (2015), a deliciously bonkers video opera by the Moscow-based collective AES+F. Come for the lavish tableaus of people enacting societal power reversals (women locking men into stylized stocks, children wrestling elders to the ground) and stay for the angelic arrival of the mutant menagerie.
There are many other strong artworks in All Art is Virtual — Sandra Perry’s interactive rowing machine that drops you onto the deck of a slave ship, Michael Bell-Smith’s vertical scroll of video game skylines that rival the splendor of Roku City, a central room filled with strange puzzle boxes by artist-scientists — but the whole sweep is ruled by a perplexing eclecticism. With so many treasures to choose from, why not zero in on a specific theme and edit from there?
This can be harder than it looks in our current cultural landscape. As David Salle wrote in a chapter of his 2016 book How To See, we’ve landed in an era of sensory overload in which “images have no fungible sense of authorship; pictures of every imaginable thing, person, event, are just so much visual weather.” But, as Salle contends, that’s why it’s particularly crucial for art to “function differently” from the rest of the imagery flashing past us.
The problem with curating in the spirit of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“the centre will not hold” and all that) is the risk of simply mirroring the moment, with its visual avalanche, channeled but not quite controlled by algorithms. No one needs more of that — we need to boldly carve something from the mass.
All Art Is Virtual continues at Art Vault (540 South Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through April 15. The exhibition was curated by Jason Foumberg.