Los Angeles Times SEPTEMBER 16, 2009 - by David Pagel


The biggest surprise of Brian Eno's light-and-sound installation is its modesty, both in terms of size and ambition. In other words, Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings is a small show.

Despite the playful overstatement of its title, the mellow exhibition requires very little of visitors and repays their attentiveness with a perfectly pleasant (and perfectly ordinary) experience of tasteful relaxation.

There's nothing wrong with that, especially in a society driven by the desire for instantaneous gratification and overrun by the demands of multi-tasking. But Eno's installation in the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach has been set up as much more than a tiny island of tranquillity in the turbulent sea of modern life. Its fascination with fame (or aesthetic celebrity) gets in the way of the art.

Just inside the front doors, a long-winded wall-text outlines Eno's career as an innovative musician and influential producer. It's impressive.

In the nearly dark main gallery, thirteen page-size prints hang on walls painted dark red. Each print is illuminated, like a precious jewel, religious relic or valuable masterpiece, by a bright spotlight. It's bombastic. The presentation swamps the objects. All are passable abstractions, competent compositions that break no new ground but still look pretty good.

To get to the show's centerpiece you must leave the main gallery, walk down a dark hall and make a sharp left into another dark hall. At its end, past comfy seats and five conical, calf-high piles of shiny silicate stones, are twelve flat-screen monitors that have been mounted on a black wall and abutted to one another so that their outermost edge traces the shape of a big jagged diamond.

At the center of the configuration is a pinwheel-shaped area that changes color slowly, from bright red and vibrant green to all sorts of tertiary tints in a rainbow of techno-pastels. Its colors correspond to the spotlights that shine on the five piles of stones. The twelve monitors follow three computer programs. The innermost four display the densest compositions, with hand-drawn scribbles intermingled with drips and splashes. The four medium-size ones feature hard-edged, loosely concentric shapes, as if all of Helen Lundeberg's paintings had been digitized, superimposed and displayed simultaneously. The four largest monitors show the most freely rendered gestures, with saturated colors swimming in and out of view.

Accompanying Eno's slow-motion light show is a track of sounds that also come and go, leaving ample silences between them. Intentionally absent is the drive of a musical composition or the focus of a sculpture or painting.

Rather than sticking with a consistent line of inquiry to see how far it can be pushed, like filmmaker Pat O'Neill, abstract painter David Reed or sound sculptor Michael Brewster, Eno is a visual dabbler, a little-of-this and a little-of-that sampler who skims the surface of media without diving into their philosophical underpinnings or wrestling with the consequences (and difficulties) of sustained inquiry.

Twenty-one years ago, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, his installation Latest Flames covered the same territory that Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings covers today. Back then, the technology was far less sophisticated. But Eno's goal - getting visitors to take a break from the daily grind - has not changed, even if his renown has made it more difficult.

Think of Eno as a Sunday painter for the digital age, a maker of electronic mandalas who wants nothing more than to leave viewers free to daydream.