I always enjoy introducing students to the dynamic Japanese Gutai movement of wild performances and experimental social interventions. The other day at the San Jose Museum of Art I was reminded of the sheer resonant beauty of Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress from 1956 by looking at Leo Villareal’s work from 2010.
Leo Villareal – now featured at the SJMA in a rhythmic homage to technology and light as mediums – says many different things about his work than Tanaka, and the technology is much advanced from the 50s. But the installation made me think of Tanaka because I have always interpreted her work through somewhat of a feminist lens – it is clothing, after all. Clothing the confines, manipulates the body, and is even somewhat dangerous. Etc, etc…
Anyway – I thought of Tanaka because Villareal’s work – while spectacular – exudes a certain muscle-y masculinity (machismo?) that I didn’t expect to find in an exhibition where light replaces paint and motherboards replace canvas. His light sculptures and “paintings” originated as curiosities at Burning Man events (!) – not necessarily a testosterone fest, but still, I don’t know why I felt as though the work was so….gendered. There is an aloofness to it; it is monumental in scope and theme (using technology not only as a tool but also as subject matter and muse) – viewers even look like little inconsequential dwarfs next to the work; and it is a little painful to look at some of it (think of trying to gaze dispassionately at a throbbing strobe light). I suppose these things came together in my mind as a flexed bicep.
As a brilliant spectacle of art as technology/technology as art, Villareal is at the pinnacle of his game; his work is stunning to experience and let wash over you like a tidal wave of whiteness. Tenaka’s dress, on the other hand, creeps into your heart slowly and persistently, like a smoldering ember that refuses to die.