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Bill Gwin

Bill Gwin is perhaps the most fine-arts-oriented of all the video artists. He operates firmly within the traditions of modern art and is pushing the limits of those traditions in new directions. He spends half his time painting and half making video. He says:

These two things bear a very close relationship one to another; they feed off each other. The thrust of my work seems to switch, to alternate between the two... Monet is a principal influence for my work, in particular the water lilies. I spent a year in Paris and I spent a great deal of time in the Orangerie with those paintings. It's an influence you could see in my painting I did at the same time as Irving Bridge, almost four years ago.
Irving Bridge, discussed earlier, is one of the classic tapes done at the National Center in 1972. Soon after completing that tape and one more, Pt. Lobos, Gwin came to New York City, where he has lived ever since. In 1973-1974, he received one of the artist-in-residence positions at the TV Lab at WNET, and made a tape about New York City called Sweet Verticality. It is a visual poem, really, set to a written poem by Joe Ribar. The tape has much more motion than his earlier work; the camera pans up the length of Park Avenue, down the World Trade Center, zooms along in subways. The raw footage is 16-mm. film stock that Gwin later processed at the lab. He is a very methodical worker; he knows what he wants when he goes in to use the equipment, and each bit is carefully rehearsed. He explains why:
With video, the medium can take over, much more easily than with painting. In the working relationship it's a much more powerful, aggressive kind of medium. Maybe you have to be a little firmer with your ideas, and be careful not to let it get out of hand, which I think happens a great deal with people's work. It's perfectly understandable. It's a hard thing to avoid. Video can be very captivating; it's easy to do up to a point, and then it becomes very difficult. But there is a certain amount of stuff that it makes all by itself, like spontaneous generation. You can sit there, and you turn one knob, and all this stuff goes on... If you don't know, you can get lost inside of it. There's nothing wrong with that; in fact, it's a wonderful way to learn. That's exactly the way I did learn. But you need a longer time than the two weeks the TV Lab can give you to mix a program: I did it for three years.
From Irving Bridge to Sweet Verticality there is a marked change of intent in Gwin's work. He has been led to an interest in language, not just music or electronic sounds, but language in his visual work:
Irving Bridge was intended to be a kind of stimulus, something that would start people's minds working in a way that was different from the way your mind normally functions. You are given a situation that asks you to redirect the way you think. But there is no effort to make any kind of precise and intelligible statement. It was only an attempt to get people to start to think, and the way they went would be totally dependent upon themselves most people would vary considerably in their responses. I think I want to move in the direction of a more precise statement. At least I want to know if I can make that kind of precise statement if I choose to. So that I'm not always trying to get people to think, but that I'm also trying to say something. This has led me to the use of language. I guess it's one of the most central things to my thinking, both in my paintings and my video tapes... That was the question Sweet Verticality raised. It's how to put language into what is essentially a visual form. Language is a wonderful thing, you know. There are things you can say with language you just can't say any other way. At the same time, there is something particular about the kind of responses you can elicit with visual things. And I think, if you could put those two elements together in some way that was cohesive, you would have opened up the possibility for a huge range of statements, statements of most any sort, from the most abstract, purely visual kinds, to the kinds of specific statements you can make with language.
Sweet Verticality has single voices and choruses speaking the poem as readers (Gwin is careful to distinguish between readers and narrators), and printed words stream across the screen as well.

In his most recent painting, a self-portrait, phrases and bits of autobiographical information are written on the canvas, buried in the painted collage of material the way he buries his words in the passing time of Sweet Verticality. In both cases, he is searching for a medium versatile enough to hold both image and language.

In this move from Irving Bridge to Sweet Verticality, Gwin marks a change that has occurred in many artists' work in video. The early fascination with the limits of the medium itself, with its ability to shape and pace time, its ability to record "natural" events as well as construct abstract ones, has shifted to an interest in using these inherent characteristics to make more specific statements. This is happening in many different ways, however, reflecting as always the flexibility and openness of the medium. As Gwin says:
It's still a very young thing. Ten years is a short time. It's impossible to see what direction it will take... it's such an immensely flexible medium, perhaps the most flexible medium that's ever been made available. It just can do an astounding number of things, so people are doing a lot of different things with it. But that's exciting.

- Johanna Branson Gill: VIDEO: STATE OF THE ART, 1976

[ index | 1969 ]