The outside of St. Cecilia’s Convent in Greenpoint on Feb. 5, 2011, was as eerie as a Hitchcock set -- cloaked in wet mist, framed by dead trees that arched and twisted in the wind, lights a-flicker -- but the informed Brooklynite knew that the inside was lit up by "Matinee," an exhibition of film and video curated by Patrick Brennan and Lauren van Haaften-Schick. The decrepit old convent has been given a shot of life in recent years, re-named St. Cecilia’s Gallery and transformed into a hub for rotating art shows and film screenings. People interested in booking it need only place a call to "Father Jim," the space’s guardian -- a priest! -- who will declare that he knows nothing about art and doesn’t care what your work entails as long as no damage is done to his building.
On view for one weekend only, "Matinee" presented works by 11 artists, including Samara Golden, Leah Beeferman, Alex da Corte and Ezra Johnson. Designed to use the building’s "series of cramped little compartments," as van Haaften-Schick put it, the show was installed throughout the church on all three floors, providing each film or video with its own mini-theater. "Patrick and I hoped that the nature of the space would encourage people to wander, and then, more importantly, to stay," she said. Notably, the lights were left off as night fell, obliging visitors to rope their way up and down stairwells and through winding hallways guided only by the flickering glow of a nearby screen.
On the first floor, Philly-based Ted Passon and Oakland’s Nick Lally welcomed St. Cecilia attendees with Makin It, a video featuring spliced snippets of celebrity interviews that was projected on the wall and framed by two recessed arches. In it, a colorful cast of ’80s heart-throbs -- Cory Haim, Milla Jovovich, Ice T and Vanilla Ice, to name a few -- flirted, cajoled and occasionally mused on fame. "I first realized I was an artist when I started getting paid for it," declares a bejeweled Marky-Mark, silhouetted by a sunset. What is it about celebrities? So cute, yet so embarrassing -- and often at their best when someone else is writing the script.
Next door, in RISD graduate Jesse A. Greenberg’s continuous-loop video Door Opener, two closed gray doors are thrown open towards the camera by a young man who leans forward momentarily, as if bowing, and then steps backwards, pulling the doors shut with him. Just before they obscure him from view, he performs some balletic twirl, which he varies slightly as the action repeats. This modest, spare work surely houses a metaphor for the making of art: the energy, the epiphany, the drama of creativity, it suggests, goes on mostly "behind closed doors." The finished work -- the part we get to see -- is but a polished shell, a beautiful surface beneath which lies all that we can’t know.
Down the hall a bit, Jeffrey Tranchell and Denise Kupferschmidt offered Ned, Josh, Joshua, Gina, four small TVs set atop a counter in a row. On each screen, an artist gives an interview or leads a studio visit, but not one word of any of their (it is safe to assume) solipsistic narratives can actually be discerned, since all the videos are playing loudly at once. The potential power of each presumably original insight is rendered indistinguishable from and by the racket of the artist on the screen one over. Brilliant.
Upstairs, projected onto a single wall, Leah Beeferman combined a series of minute, geometric vids, seen one-by-one on tiny screens throughout the church, into a glorious celebration of shape and texture. Letha Wilson’s four-screen video, 16 Possibilities for an 8 Minute Car Drive, Nova Scotia, put the viewer in the passenger seat on 16 different short car trips, projected four at once in a grid, that all depart from and return to the same place. Navigating shared streets in different ways and offering a unique narrative each time, the work testifies to the subjectivity of experience and the potential for discovery in the quotidian.
One floor up, Jesse A. Greenberg starred in his video Extra-Necessary Movement Sketch for an Untitled Project, tangling in large swaths and hammocks of spandex-y fabrics that stretch and conform to his writhing limbs. Art is a wrestling match, Greenberg seems to suggest -- though when it comes to man versus material, he makes you wonder who’s winning.
I’ll be the first to say it: very little "art-viewing" gets done at an art opening. Video exhibitions often fare worst, since no one has the attention span to actually watch a movie at 7 pm on Saturday night (unless it’s Christian Marclay’s The Clock!). That said, "Matinee" made something miraculous happen. In each gallery, there was silence, or quiet whispers, or groups of people standing together and discussing what they saw on screen. Each small viewing room was full, all the time, of people who were doing just that: viewing.
Hats off, van Haaften-Schick and Brennan -- you done good.