As a body of work, Michael Bell-Smith’s videos, installations and objects at the Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA in Portland make for a fascinating and fun introduction to new-media technology in contemporary art.
Bell-Smith covers a surprising range of serious issues considering the overall coherence of the show. The concept of appropriation is the most obvious and interesting.
One series of three video installations, for example, presents only the establishing shots from the “CSI” television shows based in Miami, New York and Las Vegas. The video gathered by Bell-Smith consists of stock footage (largely helicopter views) of the respective cities. The effect is odd, because it’s all about giving a sense of identity, and yet it’s so recognizably generic as to be laughable. Without the label information about the “CSI” franchise, the hour or so of footage would be completely ungrounded.
Unexpectedly, Bell-Smith adds some electronic squiggles to the video sequences. These happen in what appears to be the real time of gestural painting. While they appear more disjoined within this series than anywhere else, they are very much part of Bell-Smith’s serious dialogue with painting.
In fact, the most impressive achievement of the show is the Maine native’s seamless placing of his own work in the art historical continuum of post-war American art. The logic of Abstract Expressionism, post-painterly abstraction and Minimalism comes into play as well as the direct echoes of major artists such as Rauschenberg, Warhol and Lichtenstein.
Two of the most appealing works in the show are essentially digital landscape paintings. The odd thing about them is how immediately successful they are as paintings.
“Glitter Grade” is a basic landscape insofar as it comprises sky, horizon line and foreground. It feels like you are looking out at the nighttime sea. The sky is black but glows yellow and red at the horizon, while the foreground is essentially a sparkling grid in deep perspective. The effervescence is the result of a series of GIF animations created by Bell-Smith that were inspired by “digital bling” found on social network pages.
“Glitter Grade” is structured like a painting and acts like a painting. The strange thing, however, is that looking at it feels more like looking at the sea than at a work of art, because it sparkles like the actual ocean. While you could spend hours parsing its references and ideas about systems, etc., you can’t escape its rare here-and-now presence and the fact that it’s really nice to look at.
“Return to Forever” has a similar effect, except it’s more deeply entwined with art historical ideas about 1960s abstraction and, specifically, the concept of “opticality” championed by Clement Greenberg.
Other works take different bites out of the appropriation pie: A series of canvases features prints of clip-art pages. It’s particularly brilliant because most of us associate “clip art” with the digital world, and Bell-Smith employs digital techniques (championed by none other than musician Graham Nash) to print the series on canvases. Bell-Smith’s back and forth between the pre- and post-digital-era ideas is a thing of beauty.
Another series of videos is based on explosions from Pokemon cartoons. These fun and painterly abstractions conceptually trump Lichtenstein’s beaten-to-death take on comics he copied from Warhol.
Each of Bell-Smith’s five videos in the ICA’s middle gallery (complete with a remote and a comfy couch) is terrific. The first follows a product video shot of a fast-food hamburger through the series of built-in digital camera effects, begging the question: Just how special are special effects? Another compresses the entire 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin” by shifting each scene to an electronic dance beat of 120 bpm. (Watching the entire 12.5-minute video is hypnotically awesome.)
My favorite is “Art Tape: Live With/Think About,” which is basically a “video” for the Talking Heads’ song “Naive Melody.” It begins with a scene from the TV show “Law and Order” in which two characters debate the merits of Impressionism versus the gruesomely heady physicality of Lucien Freud’s nudes.
It switches to the creation of a superficially artsy apartment in the movie “Wall Street” and then shifts to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which a trio of school-skipping teenagers spends much of their day of freedom gaping at masterpieces at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Instead of tooting his own horn, Bell-Smith credits the pop culture set-piece movie with appropriating the paintings in the first place. This observant humility smartly serves to place Bell-Smith’s own work within an undeniable continuum of popular culture.
Bell-Smith punctuates “Art Tape” with a scene of his own electronic whiteboard gestures happily bouncing to the music. It’s a brilliant work of art, and all the more so for being so sweetly enjoyable.
You might associate appropriation with amoral, cutting-edge postmodernism, but looking back at Manet, Van Gogh, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and post-war American art, it’s nothing new. What has changed are copyright laws and reproduction technologies.
Bell-Smith’s insight follows the fact that our sensibilities now accommodate digital media. His elegant point isn’t the uniqueness of his own work, but rather that our cultural developments have made it essentially inevitable.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: