Wisconsin on video

By now I’m sure that most Madisonian aesthetes and local lovers of art in all its various mediums have visited the Wisconsin Triennial, which will run at the MMoCA through August 15; for those who haven’t, I’m pleased to report that the exhibit is well-worth an open-minded perusal.

While the exhibit features many paintings, sculptures and photographs that are of great interest—I was particularly drawn to Richard Knight’s borderline-infantile compositions of abstract and figurative elements that seem like near-definitive statements on the ADHD tendencies of contemporary consciousness, as well as Curtis Whaley’s at once humorous and existentially morbid schematics—the works that most attracted me were the video installations by Erik Gunneson, Kitty Huffman, Laura Stewart, Toby Kaufmann-Buhler and Chele Isaac.

Gunneson’s “Old Hickory Lane” is an assemblage consisting of a wheeled apparatus made up of dollies, tripods and six monitors screening slow, Dreyeresque tracking shots filmed in a recreation of his childhood home that he constructed in a studio in UW-Madison’s own Vilas Hall. This work requires its spectator to circle around it several times, engaging with each individual image on its own while also recognizing the overall form of the apparatus to which the images are conjoined. “Old Hickory Lane” bares the device in a totally unique way; its sheer manufacturedness  implies a poignant artificiality in Gunneson’s nostalgic efforts to excavate the memories of a bygone (and somewhat idealized) period of his own life.

Kitty Huffman’s “Self-Portrait” is my favorite of the installations on display. The work is a five-minute static long shot of a nude woman (Huffman herself) lying on her side with her back to the camera in a desolate, snowy winter setting. The human figure remains utterly still in the left middle-ground of the widescreen composition; behind it a small pack of deer wander in single-file along a path that slices the composition in half horizontally. The deer sense some sort of menacing presence in the woods and flee. The passivity of the nude woman while threatened by unseen danger makes this exercise in pictorial and performative minimalism all the more unsettling.

Chele Isaac’s “There Is No Fixing the Drift” is probably more interesting as a work of assemblage than as a video installation per se. The video centerpiece is a slightly monotonous sequence of images and sounds of the sea foaming and rolling in waves of varying sizes. The room in which the video is projected also features a mannequin clad in a nineteenth-century dress and an aquarium whose bottom is a screen presenting images similar to those being projected on the wall. The work is meant to evoke contemplation through its meditative qualities, but I found it much more engaging to skip back and forth between the installation’s objects (the mannequin, the aquarium, the two screens), focusing on the tensions formed by the juxtaposition of its constituent elements rather than on the calming flux present in its images and sounds of water.

Laura Stewart’s three videos are the most conventional of any that appear in the Triennial, in that her subjects and themes are well-established territory for avant-garde cinema (indeed, the title of one of the works, “Come Back Scorpio Rising,” is a reference to the canonical Kenneth Anger short): the lives of the derelict, of the marginalized, of the desperate, of modern-day nomads who have never come to know the concept of home. The lo-fi videos were short enough not to give me the sense that they blaze beaten trails, yet I can’t help but think that they feel a bit like old news rather than like something old imbued with new energy.

Lastly, Toby Kaufmann-Buhler’s “The Same But Different (Everything Becomes Round)”, like “Old Hickory Lane,” evokes nostalgic feelings through its slice-of-life imagery and the general wonderment it finds in the quotidian. However, it is also the most formalistic of the Triennial’s installations, presenting its images and sounds, themselves thoroughly fragmentary, through a montage that becomes something of an audiovisual game, recalling the infectious patterning of Hollis Frampton’s “Zorns Lemma” (1970).

Kaufmann-Buhler dances from image to image to the beat of dissonant, abrupt noises; a shot of dripping water serves as the master image, which is in turn interrupted by glimpses of everyday life’s more picturesque phenomena, often for only a split-second. The staccato structure of “The Same But Different” stands in stark contrast with the long takes of Huffman’s “Self-Portrait” and “Old Hickory Lane,” while the disorienting character of its image-sound interplay forms a striking antinomy with the sense of serenity engendered by “There Is No Fixing the Drift,” despite that work’s inescapable if latent heterogeneity.

I neglected to check Bruce Charlesworth’s “Love Disorder” out, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it soon enough. The Triennial contains a decent amount of proof that Wisconsin-based artists are producing legitimately interesting work in what is arguably art’s most cutting-edge medium.

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6 Responses to “Wisconsin on video”

  1. Emma Roller Says:

    ay you see “sex and the city 2” yet? there’s talk of a third directed by lars von trier…

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      I haven’t, somehow. It seems a bit too fabulous for a humorless and easily irritated grouch such as myself. As for von Trier directing the third one, that’d be something I’d go out of my way to see.

  2. Bob Waterson Says:

    I agree that the film content of the Triennial is impressive, but I have a sense that you didn’t devote the time that the artists deserve before you wrote your review.

    In addition to not seeing Charlesworth’s piece, it is clear that you watched Isaac’s film for only the first few minutes of its 10 minute loop. The centerpiece film is not merely a sequence of waves similar to what is found in the tank, she begins to manipulate the imagery to a mesmerizing unnatural state, and then incorporates images of a character wearing the mourning dress. I found it to be haunting and anything but monotonous. Additionally, calling the piece an assemblage instead of an installation is a mischaracterization, and in my view, diminishes what she did. The Victorian dress is not a found object, it is something she constructed exquisitely out of neoprene.

    MMOCA is to be applauded for including so much time based media. None of the pieces are excessively long, and visitors interested in film can view all the pieces in their entirety in under an hour. It is worth the time, especially for one that is going to offer up a critique.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Hey Bob,

      Thanks for reading. First, this post was by no means “a critique.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve since revisited the Triennial and come to believe that I misjudged Laura Stewart’s three works, “Come Back Scorpio Rising” in particular.) I’m not quite sure where you get this notion that I didn’t care much for “There Is No Fixing the Drift.” While I’ve only seen a couple of Isaac’s videos/installations (I wrote positively about “Promiseland” when it was displayed at the Memorial Union), I’ve found her work very engaging and anything but “boring,” which is what I think you want me to have said when I called aspects of “There Is No Fixing…” slightly monotonous.

      Furthermore, I don’t understand your aversion to the term “assemblage,” especially considering the heterogeneous if not disparate assortment of objects that comprises “There Is No Fixing…”, but whatever. I fail to see how calling the work an assemblage diminishes what Isaac has achieved; if anything, you seem to have a latent prejudice against found objects, but that’s neither here nor there.

      You’ve mistaken a fairly harmless recommendation for the final, authoritative word. I encouraged and continue to encourage all my readers to visit the Triennial.

  3. Bob Waterson Says:

    Sorry to be a purist, but words matter.

    I don’t have anything against assemblage and own some art that falls in that category that I love, but by definition, assemblage is a collection of found objects assembled to make a singular piece, which in some cases requires a great deal of craft to assemble, but in other cases involves very little craft in arranging. The only thing that she did not make in the piece is the tank, which seemed to be used as a lens to distort the images. Since the pieces were not physically connected, I felt the characterization was a diminishment because it implies that it is an arrangement not requiring craft. There wasn’t anything in particular I wanted you to say, except when you describe it as monotonous and possessing inescapable heterogeneity, it just seemed apparent that you only watched three of the ten minutes of the piece. My issue was with you writing about it without really viewing it, not about the opinion you expressed.

    Similarly, you mischaracterized Kitty Huffman’s piece as an installation, which it was not, it is just a film. I agree that it is a great film, one of the stronger pieces in the show, but an installation is defined as something with sculptural components that dominates a room or is specifically designed for the site.

    Finally, like it or not, if you choose to right a commentary you have written a critique by definition. Maybe it isn’t in depth. Maybe you didn’t expect readers to assign any weight to what you said. Maybe you should have said up front that you did a quick run through and it was an initial reaction without taking it in fully. But you expressed an opinion about what you saw. It is just one opinion that neither I or anyone else is going to mistake as a “final authoritive word”, but artists toil for long hours with little pay to make our lives interesting, and the least we can do before expressing an opinion about their work is to give it the attention it deserves so we don’t mischaracterize it. Dedicate the time before you write, or give an appropriate disclaimer.

    We are in an attention deficit era where many have grown up watching film and video with 3 second shots and fast cuts, and those of little patience seem incapable of taking in film with long shots, less action, or anything short of rat-a-tat-tat dialog. Like director Carlos Reygadas in his film Silent Light, Huffman and Isaac seem unafraid to mesmorize the patient viewer with long shots that set a mood and aura before transporting us somewhere. I think they are both gifted artists. If you only watch the first or last 10 minutes of Silent Light, you may have similarly mischaracterized that great film.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Well jeez, Bob.

      I suppose I’m guilty of using “assemblage” in a much looser, more flexible sense than you do. (Don’t get me wrong though, I’m glad you found it necessary to school me on the word’s proper meaning.) My understanding of the concept largely derives from the collaborative writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; if you’re interested, you can find hundreds of pages of explication there.

      You seem to have me pegged as a hack with ADHD. While I very well may be a lousy critic, I certainly have no problem investing my not-so-precious time in art that I think deserves it. Ironically, I don’t at all regret having sat through all the video works at the Triennial exhibit, including Isaac’s.

      Your point about what the film blogosphere has recently (and somewhat unfortunately) begun to refer to as “slow cinema” is well-put. Alas, your assumption that films in this mode aren’t up my alley (me being such an advocate of Michael Bay aesthetics and all) is painfully incorrect.

      Thanks for not being patronizing though! I really must get into the habit of seeing the work I write about.

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