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Art Review: The University of Maryland Art Gallery’s “Pause, Play: Selected Works by Jonathan Monaghan” online exhibit transports you to alien lands.

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Some journeys, such as religious pilgrimages, are sacred. Others, including trips to a mall or a chain of coffee shops, are insignificant or even profane. Local artist Jonathan Monaghan merges both types of excursions in his computer-generated videos. But at this point in history, perhaps the most important thing about Monaghan’s eclectic odysseys is that they’re meant to be undertaken from the comfort of home.

These fun, inventive, and immaculately rendered videos are usually shown in gallery and museum installations, but three of them are now live in the virtual exhibition”Pause, Play: Selected Works by Jonathan Monaghan.” The exhibition was curated by the University of Maryland Art Gallery, whose physical space is currently, of course, locked down. “Pause, Play” is a safe way for the venue and the artist, who graduated from Maryland, to strut their stuff.

Among the computer-generated strutters are the unicorn from “Disco Beast”; a robot knight in “Out of the Abyss”; and the main character of “The Turtle King”. These crypto-zoological or neo-mythological creatures navigate worlds that mix the interiors of hotels and luxury boutiques with the exteriors of spaceships and baroque and rococo buildings. The intricate filigree evokes an exalted past, but the hard, clean surfaces denote a cyber-utopia.

The videos, whose looping scenarios unfold without cuts, deliberately flow from one curious place to another. The simulated tracking shots continually change scale and point of view. The scenarios juxtapose the surreal and the mundane, while the fantastical inhabitants merge organic, mechanical and electronic elements.

The sense of place – strongly palpable and yet strangely alien – is akin to that of the most immersive video games. In fact, these interactive diversions were Monaghan’s original inspiration. Self-taught in animation, the artist began by appropriating and reorienting the sets and characters of consumer computer games. His other long-standing interests include consumerism, architecture (both historical and futuristic) and an increasingly technological society in which machines are always watching.

Thus, the Turtle King has a swivel camera attached to its head, while the mechanical cow in “Out of the Abyss” is equipped with minicams. Monaghan’s interest in surveillance seems particularly prescient at a time when authorities are using cellphone data to determine how many Americans have actually pressed “pause” to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

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Monaghan’s compositions often feature corporate logos, whose conspicuous presence mocks American brand culture. That changed slightly with “Out of the Abyss,” which is the most recent and, at 19 minutes, the longest of the show’s three videos. (It was made while Monaghan was a member of Rockville’s VisArts studio, which exhibited the piece last summer.) The mini-movie uses familiar logos, but changes their text to fit the design, which doesn’t is nothing less than the Book of Revelation.

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Bed Bath & Beyond’s emblem has therefore been redesigned to read “Alpha & Omega”, and the familiar curved arrow of Amazon’s logo now underlines the word “Patmos”. (It’s the island where, according to lore, the Apocalypse was written.) Plus, this galloping robot is one of the Four Horsemen of a mash-up apocalypse, whose chivalrous gear includes poles selfie sticks, tablets and Beats headphones.

The biblical theme is treated with characteristic playfulness. Monaghan’s videos move to a solemn beat, but are full of sweetly comedic moments. In “Disco Beast”, a plastic coffee cup lid becomes a celestial orb. and the aforementioned unicorn is powered by jet engines. Sometimes a smile is elicited by an unexpected naturalistic moment in this tech-rich universe, like when the unicorn taps the ground like an everyday horse – before carefully treading an escalator.

If there is a religious vision of “Pause, Play”, it is more Eastern than Western. The videos depict perpetual transformations but always return to exactly their opening image, suggesting an ever-changing yet eternal cosmos. In Monaghan’s work, recurrence is as inevitable as it is mysterious.

Pause, Play: Selected Works by Jonathan Monaghan

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