Like a generation before him, Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based artist Elad Lassry works with an awareness of the problems with pictures. But rather than exclusively adopting a position of skepticism, Lassry reinvests the image through formal and connotative means, creating complex temporalities within photographs and films, as well as historical dialogues in the multitude of signs he employs. With a self-reflexive approach to image-making appropriate to his base in Los Angeles, Lassry conflates historical moments, utilizing filmic and photographic conventions to manifest pictures with a multiplicity of meanings. While using the language of structural investigations, Lassry insinuates ruptures in the reception of familiar imagery, allowing a reconsideration of the image according to the ways in which pictures conceal and reveal themselves.
Lassry utilizes existing pictures as sources for his photographs, approximating the formats of the textbook and magazine as pedagogical forms in which the sincerity of the image is not questioned. This same interest in the didactic role of pictures extends to Lassry’s works in film. Lassry’s current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art offered the opportunity to consider his films in greater depth. Titled Three Films, the exhibition emphasizes the medium of the works on display, foreshadowing filmic representation as its subject. Significantly, all three 16mm films are silent and almost entirely comprised of static camera shots, underscoring their relationship to photographic representation. Only one film, Zebra and Woman, 2007, incorporates a minimum of camera movement, consisting of two slow horizontal tracking shots, deliberately moving across the contours of a zebra’s stripes and an actress seated in profile. The other two films, Untitled, 2008, and Untitled (Agon), 2007 each take photographs as their source material, using film’s duration to unhinge the temporal stasis of photographic representation.
Untitled (Agon), 2007 depicts two dancers performing the pas-de-deux from Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry used a diagram from Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to determine the placements of the camera, resulting in long static shots isolating parts of the dancers’ bodies, never revealing the full breadth of the space in which they move. Although the ideological collision of Humphrey and Balanchine creates its own dialogue, plenty is happening in front of the camera, as the static shots create strange abstractions of the human body. Based as they are on still images, the viewer is initially inclined to uncover what original diagram Humphrey’s text may have proposed. But the still qualities of the photographic composition cannot be re-captured; instead they open up the temporal filmic dimensions for consideration in ways that expand beyond the confines of the frame. If a single photographic moment in a dance choreography might be instructive, it becomes negligible when considering an extended interval of time, in which movement and gesture are more important than line and pose. But likewise the scripted camera positions never offer a broad view of the dance, prohibiting any gestalt comprehension of the scene.
Long takes in close-up of both performers reveal the dancers’ nervousness, their heavy breathing and their boredom as they apparently await their director’s cue to begin. They sweat. We notice her muscular neck, the rise and fall of his chest, the change in deltoid tone when she must have put her arm out to rest on the barre. Dances, after all, are not made of images; they are made of movements in space. Along with the reference to divergent aesthetic histories, Agon operates through a further procession of abstraction, depicting a series of positions, rather than representing the time of the dance. Drawing on the strategies of Structuralist film, one camera position does not sequentially lead to another, enabling montage to construct narrative; rather each shot is relatively autonomous, asking for a formal consideration of the frame as well as the subjects that inhabit it.
A similar effect is at work in Untitled, 2008, which re-conceives several 1970s photographs used in textbooks to illustrate perspective. Actors and actresses are roto-scoped on the crude illustration of a house: a man and a woman appear to sit on the roof of the house as another woman stands in the doorway. But the depiction and the actors never quite occupy the same sense of perspective. The longer the viewer watches, the stranger the presence of these people in their illusionary environment becomes. These tableaux vacillate between shots of two actors in conversation, presumably off set. We are unable to hear their dialogue, instead reading their gestures and expressions for any clue. Rather than the mechanics of vision, this film redirects the viewer to consider other possibilities of filmic representation, namely the subjectivities of the actors in the photograph. As with Untitled (Agon), by introducing the element of time into the original representation, the people in the film become subjects rather than merely figures. No longer functioning as illustrations, the images become unhinged, able to take on different modes of meaning beyond their didactic functions.
By re-constituting pedagogical images, Lassry is able to remove himself from authorial decisions, putting historical forms into dialogue as he exposes the manner in which film composes time. Writing about Deleuze’s books on cinema, John Rajchman has said,
They have another selective aim: to extract from the generality of films those singular non-linguistic signs and images invented by great film-makers to express time or movement in our own situations, milieus or worlds. They are thus not a-historical. Rather, they are abstract in another way, tied not to eternity but to the present and new problems, at once artistic and philosophical. It seems important to preserve this experimental aesthetic zone of questioning with which history is linked but to which it is not reduced.
One might take the same approach to Lassry’s works. Visiting Three Films, the viewer might sit on the ground, scooting like a crab between projection stands or sitting back to take in multiple films at once, the only sound being the whir of the projectors. Each film loops but runs at different lengths; thus chance encounters between each film surprise each viewing, inducing whiplash spins to check, and double check, if in fact the same actress appears in Zebra and Woman, 2007 and Untitled, 2008. Here the viewer is physically within the flow of images, faced with the opportunity to re-read these re-constituted pictures.
Lassry’s pictures are constructed in such a way that both formal and psychological readings are unavoidable in an image, manifesting “a world of illumination without revelation” (Rajchman). The formal construction of the image is not reconciled with the connotative effects, instigating a generative friction in the picture, in which the codes and conventions are laid bare. Out of its generic qualities emerges a capacity for distinction, assuming a place of difference; the very abstraction of the picture’s address displaces its innocuousness. Here we might comprehend the capacity for pictures to transcend their status as products of a society of the spectacle, taking on historical and emotional resonance. By introducing such multiplicities, seemingly mute images are endowed with a voice, speaking the many I’s and You’s in which pictures speak to us and we speak to them. Even in foreclosing the truth-claims of a photograph, an image can unfold to tell it’s own time.