For his first solo-museum show, Cliff Evans has installed a 20-foot long, 7-foot-high 5-channel screen, angled like a Renaissance altar with a lower predella, or wraparound panel, resembling the news crawl at the bottom of a television screen. Viewers see multiple stories appearing on several screens simultaneously.
Astride a bobble-head camel, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie trot across the desert past the Sahara casino in Las Vegas and down the digital rabbit hole of Cliff Evans' fun and fantastic new video "Empyrean."
As theme music from "Lawrence of Arabia" fills the gallery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, military parachutists drop from the sky while a bikini-clad hottie and a woman in a black burka snap Brangelina's photos on their cell phones.
Like a magic carpet, Evans' 6-minute recurring video loop carries viewers through a virtual sandstorm of pop culture and advertising logos, religious icons and vaguely familiar Internet images.
The museum's 2006 artist-in-residence, he has funkified Madame Gardner's Venetian-style palace with a cutting-edge video installation that cunningly recasts the torrent of images spewing through our lives into a morality tale of cultural collisions. "Empyrean" runs through Jan. 13.
Born in Australia and raised in an East Texas peach orchard, Evans seems to have conjured his signature storytelling style from a stew of influences from Salvador Dali to experimental cinema, from James Joyce to Monty Python.
For his first solo-museum show, he has installed a 20-foot long, 7-foot-high 5-channel screen, angled like a Renaissance altar with a lower predella, or wraparound panel, resembling the news crawl at the bottom of a television screen. Viewers see multiple stories appearing on several screens simultaneously.
For this installation, Evans said he expanded an earlier three-channel work into a more panoramic five-channel screen so viewers would be almost surrounded by multiple streams of imagistic narratives.
"I think people should respond intuitively," he said. "But I don't want to overload their senses so they get to the point of vertigo or complete nausea."
While citing sci-fi novelists William Gibson and J.G. Ballard as influences, Evans said he'd been initially inspired by Renaissance-era paintings from Europe that revealed complex stories in multiple panels.
Working out of his studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Evans created a computerized database of 50,000 images culled from the Internet. During seven months of production, he used several programs like Photoshop and Pro Tools to create the multiple streams of his interwoven stories from 10,000 separate images selected from the database he'd compiled.
In the Gardner gallery, "Empyrean" is shown by five overhead projectors which beam separate but related stories onto a triptych of three central screens, two end wing panels and the lower predella.
Sitting in the darkened gallery watching images flicker across the screen, I heard other viewers whisper about acid flashbacks and Internet overload.
When I finally stopped taking notes to just watch, I thought about ceremonies supposed to have taken place in Paleolithic caves when shamans used scenes painted on the walls to entrance initiates in magical rituals.
"Empyrean" has a visual narrative sort of but not the easy-to-digest linear plot of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Evans said, "There's definitely narrative strands that can be interpreted."
The trick, I think, is not to try to decipher Evans' images but let them flutter through your mind like sun-drunk butterflies.
He described his video as "a personal simulation of a world that's already been simulated by somebody else."
Offering a clue, he said he frequently "juxtaposed recognizable stereotypes and signifers" in a way "to disrupt expectations."
"The bulk of images I included came primarily from online sources. Though they might seem overtly about culture, I'm primarily dealing with them as stereotypes and exploring how they're represented as images of the Western world," he said.
Like Emily Dickinson, Evans employs improbable images to nudge viewers along, providing twisted pop culture archetypes like Apache helicopters, a crow pecking a man's face or tourists photographing people in corny Indian costumes.
Brad, holding a skull, and Angie, waving a blue United Nations flag, pass through a phantasmagorical landscape that seems to morph into Iraq and then into a comfy desert-style health spa. Once Brangelina disappears, viewers seem to soar through shifting but teasingly recognizable scenes in a city that might be Beirut to war-torn Africa, from Jerusalem to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome to Southwestern canyons and orange groves.
As those scenes unfold, Adam and Eve cavort in a prehistoric Eden with dinosaurs and much more in the separate side panels.
Jean-Paul Sartre once compared reading William Faulkner's novels to standing up in a racing convertible and looking backward at the road you've just passed. That's a bit like Evans' video in which familiar figures like Pope Benedict, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Jesus on the cross and the naked boy in Jean-Leon Gerome's painting "The Snake Charmer" come and go like hitchhikers along the receding digital highway.
Pieranna Cavalchini, the curator of contemporary art who invited Evans to live and work at the Gardner, observed "Fast-moving images surround and bombard us in every part of our lives as never before."
"Evans takes recognizable images ... and manipulates them using rhythm, motion and time to create complex juxtapositions that pull the viewer in. Once engaged, the viewer is obliged by the sound, the beauty, the horror of the animated, highly-focused images to look more closely and watch as a strong political and social critique emerges. It is there and it is vitriolic."
Watching "Empyrean" six times in a row is like re-reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of Joyce's "Ulysses" and finding something new each time, or like playing "World of WarCraft" for hours and discovering the habits of the Orcs and Blood Elves.
While "Empyrean" is typically defined as "the highest heaven" or "an ideal place or state," Evans has switched on a stream-of-conscious roller coaster ride through a junkyard of cultural factoids that clutter our minds.
The title, he said, "popped up in a dream."
Sartre once said "Hell is other people." If alive today, his contemporary Inferno might resemble a never-ending loop of CNN, cell phone text messages, the Shopping Network, "Survivor" re-runs, Iraq war coverage and all-Britney, all-O.J. all day.
When "Empyrean" ended with a drumbeat and a white screen, I filed out of the gallery with two other viewers. As if on cue, we all briefly turned back for a last look like moviegoers who don't want to leave the theater before seeing the final credits.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located at 280 The Fenway, Boston. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $12; seniors, $10; college students, $5 with current ID. A $2 discount is offered with a same-day visit to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Free for members, children younger than 18 and everyone named Isabella.
The following events are being offered in conjunction with the exhibit:
- Thursday, Nov. 29, 6:30 p.m.: Cliff Evans and Barbara London, of the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y, will discuss contemporary art and video.
- Thursday, Dec. 20, 7 p.m.: Evans and George Fifield, director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, will discuss the exhibit.
For more information, call 617-566-1401 or visit www.gardnermuseum.org.