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Motion Pictures: Coming to a Gallery Near You


A still from Jeffers Egan's video painting entitled "theverylasttime." (Courtesy of Jeffers Egan)


Jim Bizzocchi is a filmmaker who creates ambient videos, such as this work entitled "Rockface." (Courtesy of Jim Bizzocchi)

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Video paintings such as NomIg's "O4" shift over time. (Courtesy of NomIg)

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Video paintings are displayed much like traditional paintings, only the canvas is a high-definition television. (Courtesy of NomIg)

One of the achievements of great paintings like Picasso’s “Guernica” or the rapid-fire splashes of a Jackson Pollock, is that they evoke movement even though the images are static. Now a new type of painting features images that dart, flit and ooze across the canvas, right before your eyes.

Video painting, also known as ambient video or moving paintings, is a rapidly emerging genre in which the images change over time. The development of high-definition television and the rising popularity of large plasma and LCD flat-screen TVs have given the art form a major boost, taking it from computer screens to galleries, clubs, hotel lobbies and other public places.

One of the better-known practitioners of video painting was American artist Jeremy Blake, whose work is now on display in shows at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and at the Kinz, Tillou & Feigen gallery in New York City. Both exhibitions have attracted additional attention since Blake committed suicide in July. In Europe, the movement is more established in galleries and festivals. A German cable television station called Souvenirs From the Earth, which began broadcasting earlier this year, features video paintings and ambient video art round the clock.

What distinguishes the genre from cinema and other types of video art is that the imagery does not demand the viewer’s undivided attention. “It’s kind of like a sunset,” said artist Ed Jordan, half of the Montreal video-art duo that calls itself NomIg. “You can sit and marvel at it, or you watch it out of the corner of your eye while you’re having a conversation. You can focus on it, or it can exist as a backdrop for another experience.”

NomIg’s works are purely abstract. Their 2006 work “O2” resembles an old filmstrip--the background is nearly black, and rusty yellow forms that appear like light creep through. The images change so slowly over the 210-minute loop that the shift is imperceptible. NomIg’s works have appeared in clubs, hotel lobbies and even elevators.

The creations of other video painters are more representational. A common type is an outdoor scene--a waterfall, for instance--filmed with a stationary camera.

The works can be compared to the yule log that appears on some television stations around Christmastime, said Jim Bizzocchi, a filmmaker and professor at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. That televised fireplace, first filmed at New York’s Gracie Mansion in 1966, is “a classic archetype for ambient visual entertainment,” Bizzocchi said. It fits his criteria for an ambient work: It is engaging but doesn’t require your attention, the viewer can look away and return to the image, and it can sustain multiple viewings.

But the yule log is not art, Bizzocchi cautioned, “it’s kitsch.” Manipulation of time and of the image itself, as well as the framing of the shot, he explained, are artistic choices that elevate the form beyond kitsch.

A major influence for many ambient-video artists is the musician Brian Eno, who is credited with coining the phrase “ambient music.” In the liner notes of his 1978 album “Music for Airports,” Eno wrote that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Many visual ambient artists consider that “ignorable” quality essential; the viewer decides the level of engagement with the work.

Like many video painters, Jeffers Egan was first a filmmaker. But unlike the NomIg duo, Egan does not use video or photography as a starting point--his work is composed entirely on a computer. “I literally look at a blank screen and think, How do I start this thing?” he said. Egan’s colorful, abstract “motion paintings,” as he calls them, are mesmerizing, as the shapes shift and swirl.

The viewer’s experience is an essential part of the creation and display of video paintings. Egan hopes that viewers will reach a “sublime, contemplative” state while looking at his paintings. The images do not represent anything, he said. The meaning of the work is in the experience of it. “In a way, you are able to challenge the viewer to reconsider true reality,” he said, by presenting the viewer with “a virtual ‘real.’ ”

The absence of narrative allows viewers to have a different experience from what they would typically have staring at a television or movie screen. The viewer often looks for a story within a piece, Egan said, even if the only story is the passage of time. “That’s just your brain trying to create something out of nothing,” he explained. “Your brain is always looking for those recognizable patterns and forms.”

But some of the video painters do not see a big difference between their work and traditional painting. “With high art, you can really look at the minute details and masterful brushwork,” NomIg’s Jordan said. “You can also take a step back and just be with the general vibe of the piece, the colors. Or you can not pay attention to it at all.”

Video paintings should not demand your attention any more than oil paintings, even though the former are constantly moving, Bizzocchi said, adding, “If you buy a fine-art painting, you don’t stare at it all the time. I think ambient video has exactly that relationship with the viewer.”

The genre of video painting is changing nearly as fast as the technology. The availability of tools like HD video, real-time animation programs and flat-panel televisions is a key driving force. “The technology is one determinant,” Bizzocchi said. “The others are the creativity of the practitioners, the marketplace, and the critical discourse, both popular and academic.” The latter is what is lacking at this point, Bizzocchi said. He believes this type of art is “a genre in the process of finding itself.”

Though technology does in many ways define the genre, it presents its own challenges. Some artists distribute their work on DVD or the newer high-definition Blu-ray Disc. Egan creates limited editions of his paintings and sells them as a self-contained unit, with the movie on a memory card stored inside a flat-screen TV. “All you have to do is plug it in,” he said.

Like paint on a canvas, the new video medium has limitless possibilities, and Egan sees the evolution of the form going in many different directions, from high art to commercial design. “Some people will denigrate it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a screen saver,’ ” he said. But he believes that viewers, raised on film and television, appreciate what he and other artists are doing. “Today’s audience responds more to moving imagery,” he said.