Jennifer Steinkamp, “Judy Crook 5” (still), 2014. Video installation. The Lunder Collection; 2017. Images courtesy of the artists/Colby College Museum of Art

The inaugural show at Waterville’s Joan Digman Schmaltz Gallery of Art – in the newly opened Paul J. Schupf Art Center – presents three videos (two from Colby’s Lunder Institute collection) and a “site-responsive” sculpture (also Lunder’s) in an exhibit entitled “Light on Main Street” (through Jan. 23).

The videos are wonderful and, thematically speaking, fairly light fare. Unexpectedly, however, they initiated a contemplation for me about what constitutes video art. I don’t claim to have any answers, especially in a time when digital animation is daily transforming the medium and NFTs are further complicating a clear understanding of the genre’s value in the art market. But it’s an interesting subject to examine while viewing these works by New York-based Erin Johnson, Los Angeles-based Jennifer Steinkamp and San Francisco-based Paul Kos.

The difficulty divining a definition of video art – if one is needed at all, of course – is how wide open the field has become. More than most media, its voyeuristic predisposition (an artist recording phenomena, whether natural or constructed, with a camera) gives it infinite range: from the purely documentarian to the spiritually esoteric.

What makes it art? Does streaming it via various channels bestow a sculptural presence we more readily recognize as art (as Gary Hill or Nam June Paik – the so-called “father” of video art – did)? When it records acts of human endurance (Chris Burden’s “Shoot”), or when it forces us to confront suppressed fears (Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture”)? Is it about tackling existential questions or the nature of consciousness (plug in most any Bill Viola work here, or “The Clock,” Christian Marclay’s meditation on time)?

All these were on my mind as I took each work in, starting with Steinkamp’s digital video of a tree morphing through all four seasons in under 90 seconds. One of Steinkamp’s recurring themes is the movement of forms found in nature, though the forms themselves are composed entirely using digital technology, which sets up a certain examination about illusion and the imitation of nature.

This raises some questions: Is it accurate to call this video art? Or should we refer to it as digital art? What differentiates a work like this, called “Judy Crook 5,” from a clever short produced by an animation studio? Is mastering software a comparable art practice to oil painting or carving sculpture? Could the artificiality of the medium be commenting on the inauthenticity of our pervasive virtual reality?


Again, answers don’t come easily. Regardless, “Judy Crook 5,” an homage to an art teacher from whom Steinkamp learned color theory, is entrancing. There are moments where you may find yourself catching your breath, as when the leaves fall off their branches in a fluttery russet-hued cascade. Seconds later, as green leaves sprout in a profusion of rebirth, I felt wonder and joy.

Conversely, at times the animation doesn’t hold up to the miraculousness of the real thing. The movement of the tree’s trunk appears almost anthropomorphic, like the menacing apple trees in “The Wizard of Oz,” which diverts the animation into cartoonish territory. When spring blossoms fall from the tree, they don’t seem to have fully opened. Normally they would petal out and the wind would carry them gracefully like confetti on a breeze. Instead, they feel clunky as they plummet toward the ground.

Definitely follow the QR code on the wall label, which imparts an entirely new dimension to the work. You’ll hear a soundscape created by students from the Waterville Alternative High School under the direction of their art teacher, Jessica Hamilton-Jones. We hear the wind whirring, tinkling chimes and other effects that enhance the visual experience. It made me want to write Steinkamp to persuade her to secure rights that would make this audio component part of the artwork.

Paul Kos, “XC on Brushstrokes,” 2005. Acrylic paint on canvas with video projection. 37 1/2 in. x 56 1/4 in. (95.25 cm x 142.88 cm). The Lunder Collection; 2010.465

What’s intriguing about “XC on Brushstrokes,” Paul Kos’s contribution to the exhibit, is how a more traditional form of art – painting – adds another layer to the video experience. The video itself records a man cross-country skiing through a dense forest. By itself, it evokes the experience of being out in nature. Though there is no sound, we mentally conjure the crunch of skis on snow, the man’s huffing, the peacefulness of the woods in snow and the occasional bird call or rustle of wind.

But the video is projected onto a canvas Kos has partially covered in thick, rhythmic brushstrokes of silver and white paint. At first, they create the illusion that you’re seeing the subject through a snow-streaked window. Yet the more we look, the more we realize how beautifully the strokes vivify the sense of snow’s texture and light. They bring materiality to the qualities of the snow’s compacted frozen density and its capacity to reflect sun – or moonlight.

The QR code also leads to playlists created by the students, who were inspired by individual works. “XC” is paired with rapper Boondox’s “Path I Walk,” which doesn’t square with the “silent woods” concept or the idea of being out alone with nature. It’s message of walking alone through life’s various travails – here including drugs, coupling, gun violence – certainly could resonate, but I found it jarring to listen to it.


Erin Johnson, “Lake” (still), 2020. Video Installation

I first saw Johnson’s video, “Lake,” a couple of years ago at Cove Street Arts and found it, then as now, totally mesmerizing. Filmed during a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, it’s an aerial view of her fellow artists floating and swimming in a lake. Simple enough, right?

Yet there are so many subtleties to this unchoreographed water ballet. The swimmers begin clustered together and gradually drift or swim off in their own couplings or groups, or find quiet place of solitude and stillness. It’s immensely affecting to witness this individuation. Some bodies are lithe, others fleshy. One man’s chest is hirsute, another’s hairless. Skin is alternately tattooed and free of markings. There’s a diversity of swimwear. Some people simply float, while others go underwater to swim below other bodies. Two women hold hands. The poses and personalities seem infinite, which is what keeps our attention glued to the screen. Each moment feels fresh and expectant.

But the video’s seeming randomness also carries a message. Johnson has written, “The video reflects on the notions of togetherness and feminist theorist Silvia Federici’s call to ‘reconnect what capitalism has divided: our relation with nature, with others, and our bodies.’” Whether this is obvious to the viewer or not is beside the point; we feel those connections at some deeper dimension of our soul.

I will say that the video loses a certain sense of intimacy in this larger, wall-sized projection and in the midst of the visuals of the other two videos. The gallery is not large enough to get far enough back, which necessarily involves a certain dilution of its effect from the light and movements of the other videos.

“Lake” was projected onto screens in Times Square last year. In that environment, I can see how the vastness of the projection works effectively, its sense of stillness and tenderness constituting a kind of intervention into the chaos of this famous New York City intersection and its incessantly restless conveyance of people and commerce. That is harder to do with these constraints.

Lastly there is “Topia Terrace,” a functional sculpture of terraced beanbags covered in green shag carpeting by Barbara Gallucci. They exude a romper-room sort of fun and whimsy, but also provide relaxed perches from which to view the three videos.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

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