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Bits and Bytes

Cliff Evans' Mammoth Digital Video Speaks Loudly and Carries a Bit Shtick

An installation view of Cliff Evans' "Empyrean."
"Dead Father"

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 11/5/2008

Cliff Evans: Empyrean

Through Nov. 22 at the Library

The push-pull relationship between art and technology often bears bizarre results. Adobe Photoshop, for example, uses images from classical painting every time the program opens. Final Cut Pro allows the user to splice scenes together, even though such an action is a fiction for the benefit of those used to dealing with strips of celluloid.

So our eyelashes don't bat when Cliff Evans' new five-channel video projection piece, "Empyrean," is described as recalling "the form of 15th Century Northern European altarpieces merged with contemporary advertising narratives" on a postcard advertising its appearance at the Library in Federal Hill (curated by former City Paper contributor Jason Hughes). If we can sit before our computer screens all day pretending that our cursor brushstrokes are like those of Leonardo, it's equally possible to take today's media detritus and make it old.

The scale of "Empyrean," which began as a project at the eclectic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, accents the Library's vaulted ceilings. A single long pew, set close enough to the piece to make it difficult to see all five screens at once, moves the piece a step closer to its religious origins, and the occasional rumble of the soundtrack recalls the aural experience of a church organ.

But this buildup, even when augmented by the scarily contemporary images of the apocalypse seen in the digital print produced for the Baltimore show, is offset by the strange whimsy of the six-and-a-half minute video loop. Trafficking in an estimated 10,000 images raised from the digital ether, "Empyrean" is an imagistic narrative without a written text. Viewing it is terrifying, much in the same way that an image of Moses parting the Red Sea might be, except the story, the where and why of the event, is left up to us.

The piece opens with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie riding a camel through a desert, helpfully labeled sahara by a gaudy sign, perhaps lifted from a casino, in the background. Pitt holds the diamond-encrusted skull created by Damien Hirst, and wears a baby-blue backpack that could be mistaken for a surrogate womb. Jolie wraps her hands around the backpack while holding up the flag of the United Nations, which recurs frequently in the piece.

After this audacious start, "Empyrean" takes a whirlwind trip through Evans' imagined world, one where everything from orange groves to black helicopters to evangelicals are at peace in a place that is as much South Park as the South Pacific. With so much content, increased by Evans' division of the screens into multiple sections, it's not surprising that the piece is inspired--the soundtrack includes shape-note singing as well as triumphal orchestral scores that appear to be lifted from '50s Westerns--and tepid, with Barney the Dinosaur popping up at one point as if to remind us that, war imagery aside, kitsch is still the message.

The vastness of Evans' pictorial landscape, and the close proximity of the pew to the screen, makes his piece grow richer with each viewing as the eye wanders to its many corners. And while the absence of a story does not detract from the piece, "Empyrean" begs the viewer to add up, or at least contextualize, its alternately arresting and absurd images. Is it a parable for the Iraq folly? A gentle homage? A mockery? The piece resists such contextualization, but by recycling pop imagery it begs us to bridge the gap between the narrative, as it exists, and the backstory.

Also in the show is the smaller, both in screen size and ambition, video work, "The Dead Father and His Dother: Snake/Revival." Two screens, again set vertically and split up, present an older man, crying tears that appear to be ripping open his eyes, as images of skulls and women and cheerleaders surround him. The piece, just four minutes long, deploys looped imagery and features only two scenes, making it more unified than "Empyrean." In its second scene, an evangelical snake handler entices the viewer on one screen, while on the other a young girl holds hands with a dancing nude woman, producing visual flypaper that feels designed to attract the darkest thoughts of the religious right.

As Evans writes in his description of "Dead Father," the piece aims to show how "the Word has become flesh has become image has become cliché." This syllogism could be a stand-in for the two video pieces, connecting the ambition evident in their scale with the cynicism reflected in their imagery. Evans shows us the world, but it's a world gone wrong.

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