Posts Tagged ‘Whitney Museum of American Art’

Optical Encounters with Dan Graham

August 18, 2009
Dan Graham, Heart Pavillion, installation view a the Carnegie Museum of Art. via artnet

Dan Graham, "Heart Pavilion", 1991, two-way mirror glass and aluminum, 94 x 168 x 144 in., Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund and Carnegie International Acquisition Fund, 92.5, photo courtesy of the artist, via

Emerging from the cavernous darkness of Sadie Benning’s video installation PlayPause, I stepped off the elevator on to the 4th floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art and rubbed my eyes to get my bearings. It was immediately apparent that in so doing, the soft, ploymer contact lens that allows my right eye to overcome its normal nearsightedness, had become dislodged from its intended site over my pupil, and was presently gliding back into the farther recesses of the socket.

When the polite, if stern, gallery guard informed me that the nearest restroom was located on the second floor, I couldn’t imagine stumbling back down all those stairs when I had just arrived. So, relying on my good left eye, I surveyed the terrain. The nearest work in the installation–immediately to my right out from the elevator–provided a convenient solution to my optical predicament. Heart Pavilion, 1991 offered up its straight, perfect mirrored wall for a proper inspection of the corner of my eyeball. As I approached the polished surface, a European couple entered the pavilion ahead of me. Upon entering, the two-way mirror obscured these explorers from my view, while the entire gallery remained on view to them. Face three inches from the pavilion, I scratched away at my cornea, a final strike extracting the offending concave bugger. A quick swab of saliva, and all was back in place.

Stereovision restored, I perambulated through the Heart Pavilion, now empty but for myself. From the inside, I realized that anonymous couple had an optician’s view of my impromptu operation. While perhaps not the erotic or romantic intimacy suggested by the work’s title, it certainly suceeded in instigating an unwitting encounter in the architectural flow. I was left to ponder the ludic as well as political dynamics at work in how these architectural structures frame “a view.” The experience raises thoughts about surveillance, voyeurism, and performance, though such ideas, especially regarding a place of privilege in such non-reciprocal relationships, are not Graham’s alone. The exciting possibilities of Graham’s work are due to the pavilions’ construction with two-way mirrors. Those subjects on the darkened side of the mirror may of course see into the lightened side, but on the brighter side the glass only appears as a reflective surface. However a simple change in lighting may reverse this dynamic: quite suddenly the role of viewer and viewed could be reversed in a Graham pavilion. 

No such magical mutation in lighting design took place that day at the Whitney, but from inside one could observe, with impunity, the flow of other visitors around the open gallery. A guard admonished two young women applying the cosmetics at Girl’s Make-Up Room, 1998-2000. Tourists moved quickly from one black and white text and video to the next. Others pulled faces for the opposing mirror video installations. I lingered for a while and, quite simply, looked.

While the location of the pavilions within the museum gallery may be observed to neuter the opportunity for chance encounters, this viewer found that under the right terms of  contact it was still possible to unsettle the relationship between sight and site.

Dan Graham: Beyond at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 11.

Objects Most Resembling Contemporary Art

April 6, 2009

In her reviews of recent art fairs, Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City gave out “awards” to booths and artists on display, denoting both highlights and lowlights. Of my favorites, and ubiquitous to the contemporary art fair is the “Object Most Resembling Contemporary Art.” This negative interpretation can be attributed to the nature of the environs, which don’t exactly encourage deeply thoughtful critical reflection, often negating any sense of context or allowing favorable conditions for display.

Bethan Huws: Tour, 2007

Bethan Huws: Tour, 2007

With that in mind I couldn’t help thinking of Johnson’s award when I visited Yvon Lambert’s current group exhibition, Espéces d’Espace. One would like to think that artworks fare better presented in a gallery than an art fair booth, but sometimes no degree of formality can save them. Ostensibly predicated on an increased awareness of the space in which objects exist and the implications of space for the work of art and it’s display, the exhibition seems more like an opportunity to show otherwise unrelated new work by gallery artists. And some of it is a joy to see: a gorgeous new Jenny Holzer (but why not just go to the Whitney?), a mystifying drawing by Roni Horn (coming soon to the Whitney), a Jill Magid text-based work on paper exploring intimacy (no Whitney show that I know of–she seems more like a Guggenheim type).

But much of the work seems to compete for the Object Most Resembling Contemporary Art award. The competition is tough: a (carefully) fractured mirror would be too obvious a choice however. Zilvinas Kempinas is represented by Double O, 2008; two industrial fans face off, whipping magnetic tapes in wild oscillations. I suppose some viewers might be hypnotized by the self-cancelling airstreams and spinning black lines of tape, but the effect never rises above 7th grade science fair oohs and awes, perhaps relying too much on Olafur Eliasson-like natural world wonder but without any sense of the viewer’s alterity.

Zilvinas Kempinas: Double O, 2008

Zilvinas Kempinas: Double O, 2008

Worse, in my mind, was Bethan Huws’s contributions. Like many “contemporary artists,” Huws mines the legacy of Duchamp. The first work Nu Descendant un Escalier, 2004 spells out the title in movable type underneath a commercial signage display, the text wending its way downward in a misconceived moment of concrete poetic inspiration. Across the main gallery Huws’s Tour, 2007, takes Duchamp’s first unmodified readymade, Bottle Rack, 1914, and goes all Dan Flavin/Bruce Nauman: recreating said bottle rack in white neon. Is there a handbook for artists that says “take reference to Duchamp, add reference to Minimalism, pour over ice”? Combining Flavin’s phenomenological response to commercial lighting, Nauman’s linguistic puns with the title “Tour” (Tower), and Duchamp’s early work certainly shows that the artist can fluently parse Artforum, but does it add up to any more than that?

Elad Lassry: Three Films

April 1, 2009
Untitled (Agon), 2007, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Untitled (Agon), 2007, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

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.

Untitled (Agon), 2007

Untitled (Agon), 2007

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.

Untitled, 2008, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Untitled, 2008, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

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.