Arts & Culture » Review

Distortion to Reality

Dan Collins uses digital equipment to make abstractions come into focus.


Delmar Bambrough, head of security at the Tucson Museum of Art, has more to do of late than eyeball potential art thieves or discipline unruly gallery goers. For the 18th Stonewall show, Bambrough has metamorphosed into an informal art guide.

The big exhibition, Dan Collins: Return to the Garden, fills the museum's sloping ramps and floating galleries with an exhilarating mix of digital sculpture, closed-circuit cameras, trompe-l'oeil drawings and computers. The art is so new, and so unlike anything most of us have seen before, you almost need an instruction manual--or a guide--to fully appreciate it. Enter Bambrough.

On a recent afternoon at the museum, the genial guard led a trio of puzzled patrons into the exhibition's signature installation, "Return to the Garden," which also lends its name to the whole show. Occupying the large gallery at the museum's highest level, the gigantic "Return" consists of hanging black bits representing parts of five planes and copters--and the dismembered limbs of one mythological human, Icarus. The flat black pieces dangle on black wires from the ceiling, floating in the air against a backdrop of huge colored photos picturing balmy blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

What patrons don't realize, until Bambrough fills them in, is that these fragments all represent the wreckage of airborne vehicles that have spectacularly splintered and fallen to earth. They include such ill-starred voyagers as the space shuttle, the Hindenburg blimp, Black Hawk of Down fame, and so on. But Collins, an art professor at Arizona State University, has given his viewers a chance to reconstruct these tragic wrecks via technology.

"All these things have crashed, but we bring them back together on the computer," Bambrough explains with satisfaction, and then shows you how.

If you click on a nearby computer, and select, say, Hindenburg, a closed-circuit camera pivots toward the blimp's broken pieces. Collins has carefully arranged the black bits on the appropriate trajectory so that when the camera shoots them, distances between them disappear, and they coalesce into a whole Hindenburg--or a whole shuttle, or a whole Icarus--on the computer screen.

Thus with a click of the mouse, anyone can conquer time, re-create the past, and restore the wreckages to their intact selves, pre-explosion, pre-crash. Never mind that in real life these exploded bits will never again cling to one another. The image conquers reality.

Collins is a daring choice for the Stonewall, an annual show awarded to a living regional artist. In recent years, under the guidance of curator Julie Sasse, the show has grown more contemporary and cutting-edge, but in the past, it had a bit of rep for conservatism. (It's funded by the Stonewall Foundation, the Small family fund that gives annual stipends to 10 local nonprofits.) But this show is full of intriguing pieces like "Return to the Garden." Not only are they fun to operate once you get the hang of them, but they have weighty things to say about surveillance and technology, and the difficulty, in a world gone media-mad, of distinguishing between actual and virtual, between truth and illusion.

The artist's works are particularly pertinent in this Big Brother age of Ashcroft, but Collins has been plowing this particular field for a long time. Writing of the artist's work in 1988, the lamented, long-gone Arizona Daily Star critic Robert S. Cauthorn hit the pixel on its head when he wrote that "Collins not only knows the camera lies, he shows how."

Adept as he is with contemporary media, Collins, who holds an master's degree in sculpture and new forms from UCLA, is also steeped in art history. He's as intrigued as any Renaissance artist by optics and illusions. Quite a few of his works draw on anamorphosis, an optical trick dating from the 15th century; it entails making a distorted image that only looks "normal" when you look at it through a specific device. The Renaissance artist might have used a lens; Collins deploys the camera.

Collins' "St. Jerome and the Problem of Translation" reprises a fragment of Dürer's "St. Jerome in His Study." In the original engraving, a skull, a grim reminder of mortality, sits on a shelf in the saint's room. Collins has pulled the skull out and splattered it onto the museum wall; a dripping white shape, it's made of a contemporary plaster-like material called hydrocal. Only when we peer through a little video camera, hanging conveniently nearby on an IV pole, do we re-vision the icky white mass as a skull. The video camera, angled just so, becomes the anamorph.

Another piece in the same vein, "Virtual America III," is a savage map, torn and frayed into a big piece of green cardboard. The map looks at first like a big wound: It doesn't coalesce into the 50 states we know so well until we look at it through the anamorphic camera. Seen in black and white, it's a sad and tiny little thing, a United States stripped of its strength.

Collins also ventures into more conventional 3-D sculpture, but he gets to it via unconventional means. He's master and commander of his sculptural operations, but it's machines that do the grunt work. Collins feeds digital images into a computer, which then orders another machine to carve the actual sculpture. The results have the tactile attractions of more conventional sculpture--three-dimensionality, alluring materials--while luxuriating in the reproductive powers of high tech. Collins has made an exact copy of his elderly mother in "Speaking Like Adults," but he's made her miniscule, the better to demonstrate the sad diminution of powers in old age.

Collins' family portraits--including more sculptures of himself and his mother, and computer-manipulated pictures of his sisters--are another reason to like this inventive artist. He's using the latest techniques at his command, but he hasn't abandoned compelling content.

He even goes back to Adam and Eve in "Semiotics in Paradise." Based again on a Dürer work, this one reproduces a print of our apple-eating ancestors--minus Eve. You can only see Eve if you look into the video monitor on the wall behind the print. But where does this Eve come from?

The trusty Bambrough supplies the answer. She's been scrawled directly onto the museum wall. Drawn in powdered graphite, she's maybe 30 feet long and so distorted, so elongated, so compressed, as to be completely unrecognizable. Without the museum guard scurrying down the ramp to point out which giant sloping curve represents her hair and which her hand, one would be hard pressed to figure it all out. The anamorphic camera does the rest, and turns this sprawling mass into a quite acceptable facsimile of the Dürer Eve.

Kudos to Collins. And to Bambrough. Let's give the man a raise.

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