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Juan Downey
at Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, Arizona
Recommendation by Deborah Ross

The groundbreaking video installations of Juan Downey link aesthetic and social energy and explicate it in a rich variety of ways.

Continuing through December 31, 2011

“The Invisible Architect” is the unifying theme for the many creative endeavors of Juan Downey, the Chilean artist who worked in New York and made his name in the ‘70s through ground-breaking video installations, meticulous illustrations and the raising of eyebrows. Comprehensive is the word for this first-of-its-kind retrospective, given that Downey, who died at age 53 in 1993, never achieved quite the acclaim that his contemporary Nam June Paik did.

The third-floor gallery is probably the place to start because - how often does one get to say this? -- there’s a live snake. In “Anaconda Map of Chile” (1973) a hand-colored map of Chile is placed in a wooden case; the glass cover lets one safely admire the nocturnal anaconda (Diablo, on loan from the Phoenix Herpetological Society) and still get the message: this is Downey raising his fist to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, whose practices in the 1970s squelched a prime Chilean industry. The snake aspect was censored in the piece’s original showing in New York, probably because of a Rockefeller family connection to both the arts and to the mining company. ASU says this is the first time in the U.S. that the piece is being presented in the way the artist intended.

A few steps away is a darkened room where six screens’ worth of video projects demonstrate Downey’s early mastery of image layering and manipulation while exploring mind-bending concepts such as illusion vs. reality and gaze vs. reflection. The videos, from “The Thinking Eye” series of the ‘80s, make allusions to Velazquez, J.S. Bach, Van Eyck and other sources.

In the second-floor gallery the attention goes to Downey’s “Video Trans Americas” series, his exhaustive anthropological video diary of his travels through several regions of South America in the ‘70s. Seven pairs of monitors are set up with headphones so that museum patrons can be the vicarious travelers as Downey, the documentarian, pans the landscape and closes in on the many faces of South America. The images are grainy and the narrative is non-linear, but mesmerizing nonetheless. The footage is from a Portapak, a portable video camera that gained favor with artists at the time.

The first-floor gallery celebrates Downey the illustrator, who progressed from an MIT architectural student playing with new technology to a full-blown artist exploring the interplay of nature, patterns and form in heavily detailed colored pencil and graphite drawings. A standout is “Map of America” (1975), in which the illustration board is sectioned into five pieces. Swirling stripes of color in the shape of South America unify the pieces.

“Invisible architecture” is best described in Downey’s words: “the building up of energy between communicating bodies that release their essential life flow.” That Downey was able to harness this energy and explicate it in so many different mediums becomes clear from this exhibit.

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