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.
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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 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.
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.
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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 on them.
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 her rendering of a busy commercial strip along the horizontal axis. In the resulting mirror image it looks like the cars are up to their taillights in water.
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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 dcor.
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. pieces.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.