Video Artist Spellbinds Massachusetts

by Mia Zarrella

As you enter South Boston’s 555 Gallery, there are daunting digital sculptures demanding your attention. The recycled computer monitors present a world that is familiar: simple concepts such as walking and jumping, waterfalls and lakes, summer and winter. Behind the monitors and it’s ethereal footage is the creative mind Madeline Altmann.

“I have quite a bit of sense of humor in my artwork, probably because I don’t want people to take it too seriously on some level. I think art is shrouded sometimes in very conceptual work and it tends to alienate the layman, so to speak,” said Altmann.

Altmann’s video art collection, Spellbound: A World in Flux, is on exhibit at one of Boston’s newest galleries on 555 E 2nd Street until Dec. 12.

Deciphering which art in the gallery is Altmann’s is easy. Susan Nalband, the director of the gallery, will most likely tell you that “everything that's moving is her's."

Though the subjects of her art are simple: a woman walking, children jumping, a rushing waterfall, the video skills and presentation of the art make Altmann’s collection notable. Altmann, 52, moved to America from San Paolo, Brazil when she was 17-years-old. She lives along the Concord River in Bedford, Mass, where she draws inspiration and where much of her art takes place. She filmed

Spellbound: A World in Flux there. Her piece, “Walking on the Frozen Concord River,” features Altmann in a red coat walking over the icy river. “I thought I was going to die,” said Altmann about the filming process of the video.

“My creative process varies depending on the project. I basically just see things that I like and start building video footage around it.” Many of Altmann’s pieces in the Spellbound exhibit involve water: frozen or moving, shallow or deep. She transports the viewer from below the surface to above the surface, from summer to winter.

“Madeleine is actually capturing something that is uniquely her’s,” said Eric Marciano, 56, a filmmaker and media creator from New York who visited Altman’s exhibit on its opening day Nov. 7. “ It’s her family, it’s her dog, it’s her Concord river, it’s her yard. She's doing something that hasn't been done before and that’s neat.”

In 1981, Altmann studied video art at Hampshire College, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts before receiving her Master of Fine Arts from San Francisco Arts School. While in San Francisco, Altmann had a longstanding variety television show, MVTV. She produced, directed, and even hosted 52 live episodes featuring performance art and entertainment. “They are really crazy shows and I haven’t seen anything on television quite like it,” said Altmann.

“You might be thinking ‘Oh my god, this lady is (expletive) crazy.’”

Art was not an easy profession for her to pursue, especially when she was trying to raise her son Otto and daughter Ava. “I got kind of turned off by the art scene, there’s a lot of ego, a lot of politics, and there’s not a lot of money to make it worth it at that time in my life,” said Altmann. Because of this, Altmann decided to pursue commercial television production, which is when she earned her

Professional Masters in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University.

She worked as a director in PEG television for several years, while remaining close to home for her family.

“One of the things I wanted to capture was the art of walking,” Altmann said. “It seems effortless and natural-like, like, ‘Oh, you're just videoing her walking,’ but it’s really not. The thing with video is that whatever is going to go wrong is going to go wrong. There are so many moving parts, the wind, the light, the camera, the boat, the shaking, the vibrations of the motor.”

“I want it to be playful. I don’t want it to be demanding on the viewer.” And playful is exactly what Altmann’s piece filmed at Drake’s Island in Maine, embodies. Using a Go Pro in 4 K, Altmann recorded children at the beach jumping over a puddle-immersed Go Pro. “There was something lovely and innocent about that.”

Her art is reflective, it is relaxing, it is symbolic, it is almost paradoxical. Magically portraying natural scenery in a technological format, a format that has been discarded but Altmann revitalized. The monitors were rescued from the trash of television stations and city building and then Altmann’s partner and husband Andreas Uthoff constructed the mobile sculptures.

Several of Altmann’s installations are, as Nalband said, “just plug and play. It can be set up anywhere, at then end of a hallway, in your dorm, in a business, in a hospital. It’s very soothing.”

Not all of Altman’s work is joyful. “Black Ice,” which immerses the viewer into the depth of icy darkness where reflections of faces gradually appear, is a tribute to her brother who died in May. She said she was inspired by David Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River,” which was a tribute to his dead brother and she describes her piece as “lost memories or ghosts trapped deep in the recesses of the ice and of the mind.

“What art is and what she's doing is expressing oneself,” said Marciano. “She’s expressing herself through this medium. She’s got a style and she’s choosing a subject matter that she's comfortable with and it seems to be organically appealing to herself.”

Altmann hopes viewers can relate on a personal level to her work, whether they see faces of their lost ones in “Black Ice,” or feel the joy once again of being a child jumping over puddles.

“I just want to make it as accessible as possible,” she said. “I honestly want people to enjoy it.”