Complex ideas flash by in video show

Art review


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The argument could be made that the moving image has replaced English as the language of the 21st century.

That notion is a helpful way to think about the films in an engaging new exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art that visually communicates complex ideas through a range of stylistic and emotional states.

The artists of "Forum 65: Jones, Koester, Nashashibi/Skaer: Reanimation" are for the most part new to Pittsburgh audiences. Los Angeles-based William E. Jones will discuss his exhibition video and debut selections from his new "No Product" short film series at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The 2010 film "Our Magnolia" by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer, and the American debut of Joachim Koester's 2005 "Morning of the Magicians," will then be screened, followed by a reception with cash bar continuing until 8:30 p.m. (admission free).

Also present will be Dan Byers, associate curator of contemporary art, who joined the museum in May 2009. This is the first exhibition Mr. Byers has organized for the Carnegie and it's energized not only by the individual works but by the relationships he's set up amongst them.

"In a way, this is an experimental show," he says. "There is a real desire on the part of contemporary filmmakers that film be this place of singular concentration."

Mr. Byers somewhat subverts that intent by placing three films in a manner that invites, if not forces, perceiving them as a unit.

"One of the central things I was thinking about was how to balance their visual volumes," Mr. Byers says. "They all share a rhythm. They're all silent. They can live together."

Not only does that silence eliminate one of the most problematic aspects of presenting film/video -- sound bleed -- but it reduces competition for sensual receptivity. To not have sound is "a choice of the artists," Mr. Byers observes, "and this exhibition accentuates that choice. It makes the visual part of the film more present."

The works are all black and white and relatively short. Each is projected upon one of the walls of the intimate Forum gallery.

Dominate by size -- "but not more privileged," Mr. Byers says -- is Mr. Jones' "Punctured." It comprises photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration of Depression-era rural and urban America by the likes of Walker Evans and Ben Shahn. Each is punctured by a circle, made with a hole punch by project director Roy Stryker as he edited out almost one-half of the 145,000 negatives submitted by his photographers.

As they sequence upon the screen -- displayed, zoomed into, succeeded -- they accumulate as a memory of a historic time bolstered by viewer experience of the period and of similar imagery that has entered the canon.

"The [photographs'] order is how they were found on the Library of Congress website," Mr. Byers says. "There are groupings by the same photographer, little narrative moments of a certain place, a certain style."

On the opposite wall, less accessible imagery appears briefly on the screen of Ms. Nashashibi and Ms. Skaer's "Flash in the Metropolitan," separated by darkness.

Objects in the Near Eastern, African and Oceanic collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, are illuminated by flash bulbs and then allowed to fade from vision. Whether reanimated, reflecting the exhibition title, or referential of the short amount of time typical viewers spend with either a work of art or contemplating another culture, the treatment is mysterious, even ritualistic.

Indebted more so to ritual is Mr. Koester's "Tarantism," a work inspired by the convulsions caused by the bite of the wolf spider, or tarantula, and the resultant frenzied movements developed in the Middle Ages in Southern Italy that were thought to cure the condition. "I like to think about these convulsive movements in the context of dance," Mr. Byers says.

Projected on the wall between the other two works, and much smaller, the figures appear contained, almost trapped, their agitation magnified in opposition to the more contemplative, conceptual works.

"These little figures dancing on a tabletop in the blackness. It becomes almost poignant in a way."

The works all have to do with memory, in a sense, and with movement. For the others, it's psychological or intellectual memory, Mr. Byers observes. The body is the repository in "Tarantism." And, as viewers, "we respond in a very corporeal way."

Each piece loops continually, a strategy that allows visitors to enter at any time. It also "brings the cyclical present into the content of the work. You're always in this present tense. You suspend there with these objects in the now."

"All of the works in the show have to do with perception," Mr. Byers says. They're hypnotic, slightly hallucinogenic -- not in a psychedelic way, but in the way they're using light and dark and rhythm to reanimate these objects and experiences.

"You have to give into the rhythm, give up some of your active viewing [for passive]" Mr. Byers advises. "Your cognitive ability to read them builds as you let each piece wash over you."

"Reanimation" continues through Oct. 3. "A Brief History Of ...": A Two-Minute Film Festival," a Culture Club presentation with films chosen from public submissions, will be July 15 with picnic fare available for purchase at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. film screenings ($10 includes museum admission and two drink tickets). Information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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