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Tony Oursler

by Emily Nathan
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Tony Oursler (b. 1957), the New York-born multimedia artist known for giving new meaning to the notion of “talking heads” with his surreal video installations, showed up last night for a packed screening of his video work at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) on West 22nd Street in Chelsea. If EAI director Lori Zippay, who aimed pointed questions at the artist, was hoping for a formal presentation, she was out of luck. Oursler leaned back in his chair, his flannel shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, and peppered his responses with “I don’t know” while he smiled at his wife, the painter Jacqueline Humphries, who sat in the second row.

Oursler, who studied with John Baldessari at Cal Arts and was a friend and frequent collaborator of the late Mike Kelley, is listed in the upcoming 2012 Whitney Biennial’s roster of participants as a “performance artist,” alongside Andrea Fraser (who screened her own videos at MoMA last week). His signature esthetic involves video projections of morphing facial features onto dolls or sculptures, often installed in some odd domestic environment, all in service to rambling audio recordings that approach a kind of Beckettian theater.

EAI's program featured Oursler's lesser-known single-channel videos, and included four never-before-screened black-and-white shorts he made while a college student. Zippay noted that these early works had somehow ended up at EAI in the '80s, where they were restored and archived -- and Oursler added that he himself hadn't even seen some of them since they were made.

After Zippay’s mostly inaudible introduction, the humble Oursler, who is not one for lofty rhetoric, though born into a family of writers -- his father wrote The Greatest Story Ever Told and his grandfather was the original editor of Reader’s Digest -- offered a self-deprecating account of his discovery of the medium.

“I started as a painter, but I really struggled with how to paint,” he began. “I picked up a camera, but I was too hyper to wait for film to develop,” he went on, concluding with his eventual realization that video would be the only way for him to get images inside the TV set he’d been “staring at for many years -- vacantly.” That said, Oursler is an auteur like most video artists, incorporating his own soundtracks by The Poetics, a band he founded with Miller and Kelley in the late ‘70s, his own scripts and narration, and his own props and sets, some of which he has exhibited as works of art in their own right.

At EAI, his videos were shown chronologically, beginning with his low-tech student flicks of the late ‘70s, which feature found objects, food, body parts and even a spider as characters. Also on the bill was the spacey 1990 music video he made for Sonic Youth and his 2000 video portrait of the musician Beck.

Oursler’s student works were conceived as visual poems, songs or chants, and they feature single shots and the simple repetition of a phrase or word -- “Come on now,” or “He’s crazy!” -- to produce their narrative rhythm. Videos from the early ‘80s, Weak Bullet and Son of Oil, are billed as “post-punk horror-comedies,” and show the artist’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling in full bloom. For these works, Oursler built complex sets in vivid colors and varying mediums, blending painting, sculpture and live action. They include experiments with close-up, voice over, dialogue and dreamscape, and were filmed at numerous locations (Son of Oil was shot partly at PS1 in 1981, and the set was later exhibited there).

Interestingly, despite the adolescent tremor we hear in his voice, his videos are mostly PG. He uses eggs as testicles, and he references adultery (taking a story that he found in The National Enquirer -- “that’s the literary level we’re talking about here!”), but he steers clear of x-rated material. And although he cited Actionism, the notably bloody "theater of '70s Vienna, as an influence, he noted that he was “not interested” in participating in the happenings of Hermann Nitsch, who visited L.A. in the ‘80s and enlisted students and artists as performers. Oursler couldn’t explain why Actionism took root in California -- cf. Paul McCarthy and Kelley -- but he chalked up his own reluctance to become involved to his “Catholic upbringing.”

The EAI event marked the New York City debut of a video from 2008 titled AWGTHTHTWTA (an acronym for “are we going to have to go through with this again?”). Like a nonsensical Greek chorus, a flock of toothy Chelsea public-school children stand on a stage, ostensibly reading from cue cards. What they say, in something like harmony, is difficult to make out, but it is sprinkled with text-message acronyms and references to video game culture -- a sort of contemporary fairytale in the vernacular. Inexplicably, shots of the children are intercut with interviews of accented youths speaking about their dreams for world peace. It could be a commercial for a benevolent nonprofit, if only it made any sense.

Though a New Yorker, Oursler explained that his career has been marked by a constant back-and-forth between the two coasts. “California is New York,” he asserted last night, to an audience of New Yorkers more or less bewildered at this bit of kumbayah. “New York is California. You just don’t know it yet.”

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email