by Stephen Maine
... Monument Valley (1999-2000, 8 min.) by Liselot van der Heijden
explores the modern media-skewed experience of the landscape of the
American West using footage and promotional material from John Ford's
film The Searchers. Frumpy sightseers "shoot" pictures of
the distant mesas to a soundtrack of gunfire and galloping horses.
The artist recently showed new work at the nearby Schroeder Romero,
and she represents the social/political critique school of video at
the core of Momenta's program. ...
There's nothing wrong with exhibiting video in a gallery, but it's
usually a mistake to present a video monitor as if it were a painting
or sculpture. The static image is well served by the "white cube" of
the contemporary exhibition space, where it is isolated from the hurly-burly
of real time. We don't stand in front of a painting waiting for something
to happen. It's happening for us, or we move on. But video makes different
demands on the viewer's time. Having reached a certain age, the conventions
of its presentation are ready for a rethink.
Two current shows at venerable Brooklyn alternative spaces devise new
paradigms for the exhibition of video: "Multiplex" at Smack
Mellon in Dumbo, Jan 24-Mar. 7, 2004, and "Video X" at Momenta
Art in Williamsburg, Jan. 23-Feb. 23, 2004.
Founded in 1995 and directed since 2000 by Kathleen Gilrain, Smack
Mellon is currently the best reason for gallery-goers to visit the
Dumbo area. Recent memorable shows there include "Big Cry Baby," a
very personal selection of works by Jerry Kearns, and last spring's "Custom
Fit," site-specific works curated by Gilrain herself. With "Multiplex," Gilrain
and her co-curator, the artist (and 2004 Whitney Biennial pick) Eve
Sussman, have put together an eclectic, energetic group of videos that
share an interest in cinematic genre.
With the assistance of Chris Doyle, they have outfitted the gallery's
darkened, cavernous interior with a complex of ramps, platforms and
viewing areas which allow the visitor to drift easily from one screen
or monitor to another. Three or four movie-house chairs face each screen
(many of which are wall-sized) and headphones are provided for those
who don't want to miss a word. It is a spectacular environment; from
any vantage point several screens are visible, generating random combinations
of disparate imagery. The pieces themselves range in mode from impressionistic
(Neil Goldberg's eight-minute loop of pedestrians' bobbing heads seen
through a telephoto lens) to narrative, with some of the most memorable
mining a comic vein.
Particularly winning is Shannon Plumb's How To (2002, 35 min.), in
which a slightly unhinged housewife in robe and curlers seems to be
sampling the private domestic habits of others, as recorded in voice-overs,
as if she herself has distinctly not enough to do. The activities range
from matters of personal hygiene to devotional practices to cooking
preparations, and the woman onscreen reenacts them for the camera in
flickering, speedy low-resolution, with a mix of vulnerability and
tenaciousness. Plumb's riff on the instructional film is a product
of her tenure at Smack Mellon's Artist Studio Program, a one-year residency
program founded by Gilrain in 2000.
Julian Stark amusingly sends up the classical epic in The 12 Labors
of Hercules (2002, 13 min.). The Greek god's punishment for killing
his family after his mom drove him insane, the Labors have many details
that are still disputed by scholars -- allowing the narrative leeway
this project revels in. Low-budget with a vengeance, Stark's Hercules
wrestles the Cretan Bull -- actually a vintage Dodge Diplomat outfitted
with a longhorn hood ornament -- and signals his victory by flicking
on the bull's hazard lights and opening the hood. A flock of pigeons
outside the American Museum of Natural History stand in for those pesky
Stymphalian Birds, while Cerberus, the hound that guards the gates
of Hades, is played by a camera-shy Chihuahua with a ghostly stare.
Sports broadcasting is the media reference point in Bjorn Again (2003)
by Chris Sollars, in which tennis great Bjorn Borg appears to be engaged
in a televised match against his feminine side -- and she kicks his
ass. The artist, who convincingly resembles Borg in a skirt, has spliced
himself into 58 minutes of footage, a hypothetical jump-cutting technique
that is also used effectively by Javier Cambre in his video Contempt
(recently on view at starsixtyseven), where he seamlessly stars opposite
Brigitte Bardot in the classic Godard film.
Sollars, not so concerned with continuity, is much more upfront about
the element of fantasy fulfillment, and the slacker-living-room set
we enter to view the piece (on a vintage TV) is adorned with the attributes
of late-'70s High Blonde culture: posters of Farrah Fawcett and Bo
Derek, stacks of Playboy magazine and even period snacks. Not the one-liner
it appears at first to be, this work has an oddly melancholy air in
its exploration of sexual identity and sports fandom.
* * *
The "X" in "Video X" refers to the ten years that
gallery director Eric Heist has been presenting video, both at Momenta
and at other venues. Heist and assistant director Michael Waugh have
assembled a retrospective of video works shown by the gallery, and
invited the artists to send in something new. All the work is available
for the public to view; the gallery's front space features a shelf
of videotape and DVD cases bearing descriptions and a still image,
allowing the curious visitor to browse and request a copy to play.
The issue here is ease of use, and according to Waugh, visitors are
taking to the idea.
The gallery's back room has been divided into two viewing areas where
videos are screened continuously, one per screen for a week, so that
even a quick spin through the gallery gives an idea of the range of
work available. A group of wall works by various artists, derived from
their videos, rounds out the show.
Monument Valley (1999-2000, 8 min.) by Liselot van der Heijden
explores the modern media-skewed experience of the landscape of the
West using footage and promotional material from John Ford's film The
Searchers. Frumpy sightseers "shoot" pictures of the distant
mesas to a soundtrack of gunfire and galloping horses. The artist recently
showed new work at the nearby Schroeder Romero, and she represents
the social/political critique school of video at the core of Momenta's
A comic standout from the collection is the silent, slapstick Moby
Dick by Guy Ben Ner (2000, 12 min.). The artist plays all the main
characters of the Melville novel (except Pip, who is played by his
daughter) with their thinly disguised kitchen as the deck of the Pequod.
The narrative potential of cupboards and faucets is fully explored,
as is the magic of stop-motion animation to evoke the circling of sharks.
A meditative note is sounded in The Lotus Eater (2000, 7 min.) by Christian
Nguyen, in which the hushed stillness of the corporate environment
is likened to the serene surroundings of religious devotion: computer
screen as tabernacle, stock ticker as mantra. The piece was shot in
the lobbies and corridors of the World Trade Center; in Labyrinth (2002,
8 min.), stills from the earlier video are combined with animated forms
suggesting aircraft emerging from the walls and floors, gliding harmlessly
through the space -- and vanishing.
* * *
Of course, a certain requirement of the viewer's time is made by traditional
media as well, as demonstrated by "A Slow Read," a group
show assembled by Manhattan artist Katarina Wong for the Rotunda Gallery
in Brooklyn Heights. Through their Curatorial Initiatives Program,
Rotunda has provided an important venue for new curators since 1997,
when Byron Kim put together an exhibition of landscape-derived painting
for the space.
The work varies in quality so widely that one senses Wong's selections
were driven more by the desire to illustrate her thesis -- that they
are too complex, subtle, elusive or labor-intensive to be absorbed
quickly -- than by her own personal taste or eye. Some pieces, while
perhaps supporting the curatorial hook, don't pull their weight visually.
Nevertheless, several stronger pieces do reward prolonged viewing.
Stephen B. Nguyen's dark, looming paintings of the city at night, like
Untitled (2003, 30 x 30") ominously suggest that what we don't
see can hurt us. Spots of colored light on a glossy black expanse promise
to establish an unequivocal figure/ground relationship, but Nguyen
subverts even that: a few cropped dots, and we're walking into a wall.
James Nelson, represented here by three drawings in graphite on rice
paper, is one of the very few "obsessive" mark-makers whose
work transcends that genre and takes on a life of its own as the trace
of an artist responding to his materials rather than imposing his will
Elizabeth Fleming gives us her take on the quotidian sublime: 13 x
13 in. digital C-prints of dishwasher racks, dustballs and piles of
laundry made strange and momentarily unrecognizable through extreme
close-ups. Resist the urge to read the labels -- her titles give the
game away. And in Central Avenue (2003, 30 x 42 in.), a beautiful ink
wash drawing by Leigh Tarentino, the artist has reversed the top half
of his rendering of a busy commercial strip along the horizontal axis.
In the resulting mirror image it looks like that the cars are up to
their taillights in water.
* * *
Meanwhile, back in the commercial gallery world, Sideshow presents "Rooms
of Man," C-prints mounted on aluminum by mid-career Finnish photographer
Jaakko Heikkila, Jan. 17-Feb. 9, 2004. They are indeed portraits of
rooms -- in Finland, Russia, and Harlem, New York City -- in which
the single occupant is merely one among innumerable elements of its
The pictures were taken with a panoramic camera of the type sometimes
used in landscape photography. Brought indoors, the lens does crazy
things to space, accentuating the low-ceilinged claustrophobia of the
modest homes, while sending vistas rushing off to the left and right.
In Oleg's Home (1999) is a visual obstacle course of patterned fabrics,
textured surfaces and industrial colors, relieved by a glimpse through
a doorway to the silhouette of a seated figure bathed in light.
When Heikkila turns his camera sideways for a vertical frame, he prints
the results six and a half feet high; the spatial dynamics are less
baroque, and the sitters seem commensurately buttoned-up. The prices
are $900 for the 17 x 40 in. prints and $3,200 for the 79 x 33 in.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.