Jennifer Steinkamp's current exhibition is a blowout extravaganza. The pieces are dominating and gigantic, controlling the area and the body, threatening to overpower the gallery space. Curated by the San Jose Museum of Art's JoAnne Northrup, the exhibition was organized under the auspices of former Kemper director Dan Keegan and is accompanied by a hefty and decorative catalog that shares the visual clout of the art.
Steinkamp works with video, new media and digital projections to create images and environments that examine space, nature, architecture, history, politics and optical experiences. In this installation, she uses the museum's main gallery to maximum effect. Though the major and biggest pieces are perhaps the most popular, more subtle pieces, such as "Space Ghost" in which four strands of gooey, DNA-like images shoot up the wall about 23 feet complement the building's architecture, which, in turn, heightens the work's visual performance. Across from that behemoth is "Formation," a much gentler piece that turns a small swath of real estate into a wall of gently free-falling fabric rectangles. Steinkamp's understanding of architecture, and how her pieces perform within its framework, is fundamental to their visual and conceptual impact.
The superlative piece in the exhibition, "Jimmy Carter," has already been seen in Kansas City in Bruce Hartman's 2003 exhibition at Johnson County Community College. Still, it's one of Steinkamp's most seductive works here. Vertical rows of densely packed flowers sway as if underwater, creating a spellbinding environment whose tendency to draw in the viewer reveals a paradox of Steinkamp's work: The closer one gets to the object of one's desire, the more impossible that object is to perceive. Upon close inspection, the pixels in the work become so large that the piece begins to visually disintegrate. The distance that one needs to visually comprehend the art both satisfies and frustrates.
Steinkamp often tries to redress social and cultural inequalities. She created "Eye Catching" in 2003 for Istanbul's sixth-century Yerebatan Cistern, an underground water-storage cavern with cathedral-like tunnels. In Turkey, Steinkamp created a site-specific piece that responded to the cistern's two Medusa heads. The mythological Medusa's hair was made of serpents, and a mere look from her could turn men to stone; Steinkamp notes that her piece was an effort to celebrate female sexuality and Medusa's powerful beauty, which men so feared. She projected three sinuous, writhing trees with limbs that moved as if electrically alive. Here, she has reformatted the piece to project just one tree. Lacking the context of the original installation, it's questionable whether this version succeeds at making any sort of political statement, but the repeating movement is hypnotic and transformative.
Ultimately, Steinkamp's work is most impressive when it seems to become architecture. In its monumentality and its ability to delineate, reconstitute and reframe a space, it explores spatial abstraction. Her canny strategies shift the spatial relationships we've become accustomed to, intervening with our perception. Bodies become part of a building that is suddenly vague and gossamer.
She creates immersive experiences that border on the borderless. By disintegrating optical boundaries, Steinkamp destabilizes architecture, space, bodies and their relationships to one another. Her work dissolves architecture's authority, re-creating space as a flexible, fluid, counterintuitive site of visual phenomena.