SEEDLING A huge leap for Susan Robb. Susan Robb
Iole Alessandrini
First Christian Church, 1632 Broadway, 682-6552.
Through Dec 15.

As it turns out, a church is exactly the right place for unorthodox juxtaposition. I'm not speaking only of New York's Limelight in the '80s, but also of a relationship with art that goes back about a thousand years, the kind of relationship that involves complete submersion into another environment, the subsuming of the self into the vision of another, a complicated plan you may or may not understand.

The church is the most suggestive and least innocuous venue possible. Its presence hangs significantly over artist-in-residence Iole Alessandrini's current installation in First Christian Church, and exerted a less obvious pressure there over last month's installations by the artists of the New Works Laboratory. (It is impossible to forget that you are in a church, especially when, looking for the art, you wander into an AA meeting instead.)

In a markedly Orwellian social experiment, the New Works Laboratory paired traditional artists with new-media artists, ostensibly to see where art is going. Were the so-called traditional artists meant to serve as a seeing-eye dog for those mucking around in the still-murky waters of new media, imparting the authority of art that is still considered "fine"? Or did new media haul traditional art out of its retrograde pieties? Whichever is true, the partnerships largely resulted in exciting work--a dialectical result, perhaps, of two independent minds clashing.

The installations, to varying degrees, each created a sanctified space within a sanctified space. All of them were closed systems you entered and negotiated without reference to the outside world. Blindly, even. Like the wheel within a wheel of religion and the authority suggested by its spaces.

This was most powerfully created in Seedling, Susan Robb's engaging moonlit forest (with video by R. Eugene Parnell), which was actually lit by dozens of tiny video monitors and was not a forest but a kind of Seussian wonderland of enormous swaying white stalks sprouting video monitors showing biological functions and fractals replicating. It was very nearly perfect: human-sized, organic, and lovable but also eerie. Seedling represents a huge leap for Robb, who has been laboring to make small things enormous by way of macro lenses and large prints; here she just fucking went for it, thrusting--instead of suggesting--her world on you.

Jennifer West and Phil Roach collaborated on the mind-bending Flux, a room fitted out with sensors that tripped a gyrating box full of some kind of goo, the movements of which were then projected onto the walls of the room. The result was a cage in which gooey yellowish waves rushed at you and then receded, at times calm, at times diluvian. (After a couple of weeks, the goo went bad, so the waves produced rather pretty floating organisms.) Dave Hanagan and Donnabelle Casis' Reverb was sexy and very, very pretty (video projected onto, through, and past long strands of giant sequins, casting watery reflections), but was the least intellectually satisfying of the three, resembling nothing so much as a chill-out room for stoners.

The current exhibition in the sanctuary--Alessandrini's work in progress--has a more free-floating feel, an atmosphere invoked in service of, rather than in opposition to, the church architecture. Rather than a finite, enclosed system, Alessandrini has mounted a profile of parts that may or may not add up to a complete experience. On the right-hand wall is one of the most beautiful things I've seen all year: a moving green line of light, created with a laser that outlines each architectural element, that seems to drip from the columns as it shifts. Nonsensical audio also shifts its point of origin from corner to corner. Six LCD panels are installed throughout the church, in the pews as well as places where people normally don't go, such as the altar and pulpit. These screens scroll trigonometric formulas that you sense have something to do with the church ("balc" and "col" and "pew") and with projection ("depth" and "geometry" and "pixel resolution"), but remain impenetrable. Here the viewer begins to wax philosophical: Where do I fit in? Am I understanding what I'm seeing? Am I seeing the whole picture? What is being withheld from me? Apt questions for sitting in church, and for encountering art.