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Renovations successfully merge function and beauty

Renovations to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s video gallery in La Jolla have successfully merged function with architectural beauty.

Architect Lloyd Russell, a son of La Jolla, was invited to redesign the space because of his ability to retain original details while creating unique touches with a technique he calls “handmade modernism.”

The challenge to Russell was balancing the exhibit parameters of the gallery with design elements.

“Many artists are very specific about the way their art is shown,” said MCASD Curator Stephanie Hanor, citing artistic demand for how large the projection is, wall color, what elements surround the area and so forth.

Russell’s innovative approach to design and construction have resulted in a gallery with enough architectural detail to stand alone as a work of art while forming a complimentary setting for the museum’s extensive video art collection.

A graduate of Francis Parker High School, Russell grew up in La Jolla. He obtained his architectural education from California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo in 1991 and spent 10 years working with architect Ted Smith. Inspired by the work of Irving Gill and Rudolph Schlinder, Russell described himself as a throwback to old-fashioned architecture by acting as architect, developer and contractor.

“I can insert myself into the building process at different times and influence what’s happening,” he said. “To me, the design of a building is a very fluid process, and you’re making decisions the entire time until it’s done.”

In 2006, MCASD commissioned Russell to expand the video porch, so known because the space had been Ellen Browning Scripps’ sun porch. His renovations expanded the gallery to include a large room that can accommodate multiple-projection works and a smaller gallery for single-channel monitor or sculptural video pieces.

Most of the renovations were environmental. The space was set up for high-quality sound, to maximize the darkness of the space and control light levels, and making it large enough to accommodate varying scale pieces. Although the art work is high-tech, the gallery did not require extensive technology fixtures.

Russell incorporated details from the room’s original construction, including board-formed cast concrete, a door form and brick walls.

“The museum has so many old and new parts,” he said. “I wanted to express the mystery of going into an old space and discovering something. Because I took on all the responsibilities, I could do some fine or experimental details that someone else might not do because it’s too risky.”

The video gallery renovation was in keeping with the museum’s mission to keep pace with changing times. Just as the video medium has changed, the exhibit space also had to evolve.

“Video art is a fairly new media in the history of art,” Hanor said. “Artists really started having access to video in the late 1960s because that’s when video cameras became commercially available.”

Previously, the video gallery was little more than a television set that showcased videos from the museum’s collection.

Early video art was usually a display on a VHS tape. The cost of equipment severely limited both creation and display of these pieces. Changes to the accessibility and affordability of technology over the last 20 years has given video artists greater diversity in what can be created and how it can be exhibited. Images can be manipulated via computer or digital video. It’s a new kind of storytelling.

Two pieces are currently on exhibit in the renovated video gallery and will remain on view until May 13.

“Stepfather,” by Tony Oursler, includes a fiberglass sphere suspended from the ceiling onto which the image of a very large eyeball is projected. Viewers watch the reactions of the eyeball as it watches television, a small image visible within the eye.

Kota Ezawa’s “The Simpson Verdict” is a digital animated short. Done with a program that transforms video footage into animation, the piece includes three minutes from the O.J. Simpson trial, when the verdict was announced.

“It’s absolutely hypnotizing and the animation lends a kind of fantastical quality, otherworldliness ... that sort of mirrors the sensations that you get from hearing the verdict,” Hanor said.

The new gallery space will allow the museum to regularly exhibit pieces from their collection, which includes early single-channel works and multi-channel installation pieces.

“The goals of the space are really what we’re using it for now,” Hanor said, “It’s really to have dedicated spaces so we’re always showing some kind of video work in the galleries.”

MCASD La Jolla is located at 700 Prospect St. The downtown campus includes 1100 and 1001 Kettner Blvd. Call (858) 454-3541 or visit www.mcasd.org for hours, admission prices and exhibit information.