A Review of Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago


Diana Thater freely admits: “I couldn’t paint. So I decided I would do something I could do.”  Monet was a favorite artist of Thater’s “because of the colors and images. People love Monet.” So while Thater chose not to paint using traditional media, she finesses it using electronic media along with natural and artificial light. Her work has all the transcendent beauty of Hudson River School painters, elevating nature and the environment beyond the normal confines of two-dimensional, representational art.

Traditional art objects—painting, photography, and sculpture—are typically static, resulting in an almost pure retinal experience for the viewer.  Activated art media, such as installation and performance, are immersive experiences, typically engaging the viewer in a more physical way by stimulating greater sensory awareness.  The distance between artist and the art viewer in installation is abbreviated, sometimes nonexistent.  The viewer is a participant, even part of the object installation.  This experience becomes even more acute in non-narrative, non-soundtrack works of Diana Thater's, where the viewer’s physical presence is requisite and the closest thing to story line is rendered like haiku.




Thater's work can confound people, whose understanding and experience with "video" (“time-based media” in more “elevated” parlance) is most typically via computers, television, and theater screens.  There are no seats, benches, or creature comforts in any of Thater's installations.  There is no music; there is no sound.  This is neither Stan Douglas nor Pipilotti Rist.  This is not Doug Aitken and certainly not Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin.  You are not allowed to be passive.  You walk in, through, and around the work.  You interfere with the visuals, and join the art.  Viewers are not used to (and usually not permitted to) interact with art.  This creates uncertainty, even discomfort.  People hesitate, sensing that they are trespassing, by passing between the projector and the wall.

Viewer interference often creates elongated shadows and out-of-register color separations from the RGB projectors placed on the floor or mounted on walls.  Thater’s signature treatment of architecture and light, using colored theatrical gels, distorts internal lighting.  She pushes the idea of installation forward and even inside out.  You can see solid tinted panes of green glass on the 4th floor of the MCA from the corner of Michigan and Chicago Avenues.  Sometimes the work is positioned straight on, nearly filling a wall like a transparent or translucent fresco. Other times, the projections are abstractions that segment or fill a room's architecture.  Like John Ford’s renowned Westerns, “landscape becomes a character and not just a backdrop”  (Thater, Unframed, December 7, 2015.)   With Thater’s work, you can step into Monet’s gardens at Giverny.  You can swim with Caribbean dolphins.  You can touch the sun and reach to the moon.  Projections of bees hover near the ceiling.  Mule deer directly stare at you from the meadows and dwarf forests of Bryce Canyon, Utah.




Thater’s installations are particularly well suited for galleries and museums. The works consume volume; they do not just occupy space.  This is an important attribute frequently overlooked in describing Thater’s work. “Nothing I do is casual,” Thater freely admits. The work is determinedly engineered. Her work creates particular challenges for domestic environments, making projected installation works more difficult to collect. Her technological solutions have kept apace of both software and hardware developments, using single or combinations of television cubes or flat screen monitors for more domestic uses. Thater’s works are now “plug-and-play,” much to the relief of technophobes, who ironically have no problem connecting 54” diagonal wafer-thin flat-screen TV in their family room.  Thater’s flat-screen installations are no different from paintings. Her single and combination monitors with their exposed DVD players and electrical cords are video sculptures akin to, but completely unlike, Nam June Paik’s.

Thater addresses her subjects fearlessly. Few artists have focused so resolutely and confidently on the politics of man’s relationship to animals, the environment, and ecology. These themes have been paramount since Thater's earliest shows.  It is unfortunate that earlier works are not better represented in this historical overview. Thater is a front-line, consciousness-raising artist, documenting environmental hazards and disasters, like the aftermath of Chernobyl, where the free-ranging Przewalski horses inhabiting the exclusion zone will inevitably die of radiation sickness.  Thater’s dreamy depictions of wild dolphins swimming are actually alarms about oceanic pollution and commercial fishing. Her projections of monster-sized bees are reminders about the fragility of food chains and potential for environmental collapse. This is not PETA-enraged activism; rather Thater effortlessly illuminates natural beauty and underscores the fragility of our planet, both its wildness and wilderness.




Thater's exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is a partial reconfiguration of the work she presented in a sprawling 22-work retrospective earlier this year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is different not just because of MCA’s space limitations, but also because of the awkward vaulted ceilings and irregular galleries of the museum's architecture by Josef Kleihues. Coincidentally, Thater also had to cope with Kleihues's "poetic rationalist" design during her 2004 mid-career exhibition in Siegen, Germany. Thater has prevailed in both Siegen and Chicago, despite the architecture. She paints in three-dimensions, unencumbered by traditional notions.

Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.com

At MCA Chicago from October 29th 2016 until January 8th 2017