Marc Burgess' Adult Arcade is a rewardingly disorienting trip | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Marc Burgess' Adult Arcade is a rewardingly disorienting trip

Lasers, sensor-activated lighting, abstract paintings and more made up this compelling, gallery-sized installation

Dissolving the physical: An image from Adult Arcade, an installation by Marc Burgess
Dissolving the physical: An image from Adult Arcade, an installation by Marc Burgess

In the current exhibit at 707 Penn Gallery, Adult Arcade, viewers must overcome their disorientation and reflect upon how their presence is part of, but also separate from, the artist's conception of a space. 

According to Marc Burgess, the individual "create[s] a personalized atmosphere depending on where [he] chooses to walk throughout the space." The storefront-sized space is a darkened room closed off by black drapes, enlivened by sensor-tripped red lights, textured wall paintings, ambient music and minimalistic sculpture.

Burgess, the energetic force behind Adult Arcade, is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a jack of all trades, and a foreman at Wood Street Galleries. In an email interview with CP, Burgess said that he spent a year thinking about manipulating the various elements in the exhibit, intrigued by forces of scale and perspective that he found in the work of Dali and Escher. His idea finally arrived after contemplating an old porn-shop sign with flashing bulbs, which carried the rubric "Adult Arcade."

The installation evokes complex and multiple associations, thoughts and moods, but also gives us a glimpse of the inner world of the artist. He grew up in the '80s, during the ascent of robotics and "lasers all over the place — in sci-fi movies, dance clubs, factories, even your local supermarket," he writes. The installation is meant to be "my own red-light district without any filth."

As the artist Sol LeWitt said, "Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple." So it is with this installation. However, it takes some time to orient yourself to the surroundings. Light sensors on the floor and ceiling are activated by movement, but the lights stay on for only two or three seconds. It is also difficult to ascertain when or where one's movement will be detected.

The sensors activate pairs of red spotlights that are aimed at groups of textured paintings on the wall. These 3-by-3-foot white-and-black paintings are arranged in groups of two to five canvases. The surfaces, made up of joint compound, are worked up by forks or other implements to create reliefs and patterns sometimes resembling railroad ties or topographical maps. Ribbons of black arranged by one-point perspective meander and loop through paintings that have great plains of oceanic whiteness. In some cases, the black marks remind one of rivulets of water or lakes and valleys seen from a great distance above.

At the center of the room is located a nearly symmetrical white sculpture made up of wooden rectangular boxes of different sizes. An enigmatic monolith, capped by a long wooden strut, it rises to the ceiling. A laser is mounted on the ceiling, and Burgess concerns himself with the way the pencil-point-sharp red beam wraps around the edges of this sculpture. Some elements in the sculpture's façade overhang, and it is interesting to see how the laser skips the resulting intervals in the vertical surface, implying continuity in the face of discontinuity.

While the visual message put forth by the artist is slow to be realized, the background soundscape is more immediate. Burgess used a Boss loop station to create the 10 or so tracks, each made from one to 30 layers of sound that he composed himself playing both guitar and bass. It operates as a steady electrical drone, sometimes with a call-and-response pattern, but always with an intense driving rhythm. It is hard not to meditate through this music on the loneliness of our planet as we produce sound that slowly makes its way into the cosmos. 

Contrasting with the more mundane elements of the installation is a ceiling-mounted revolving laser. Activated by movement, it creates a moving red latticework on one of the empty walls. The motor produces a whirring sound as its components struggle to turn. The noise is unintentional, says the artist, the result of a last-minute equipment substitution. Still, there is an element of robotic foreignness here, inadvertently making a statement about our conflicted relationship with machines.

On a second visit to the exhibit, I discovered some wooden beams hanging from a corner of the room, possibly created in order to dialogue with the monolith. It almost seems a kind of spatial music mirroring the orbs that float in our solar system. One is reminded of painter Frank Kupka's "The First Step." The beams lack any logic, but perhaps there is only the need to be intuitive here. 

In the end, Adult Arcade makes me think about the parts of the physical universe that are largely invisible. Maybe less is more, or perhaps there are laws in the universe, reflected in the exhibit, that extend beyond our cognition.

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