at Young Projects
Closes August 2, 2013
By: Astra Price
With a massive multi-channel installation and a range of single channel works, the current exhibition, Phil Solomon: Before and After the Falls, at Young Projects ask a very important question: Where does moving image media belong? This is not a question of the value of experimental cinema or video art. In contemporary art culture there can be little doubt about the importance and place of experimental cinema and video art in art history, and these well tread pro/con arguments now seem quaint and dated. Moving image mediums have been accepted into the canon and are as ubiquitous as the painted line in current art practice. However Solomon’s work in the current exhibition points to the importance of viewing space as much as to the content of the work itself.
See exclusive footage from American Falls HERE.
This questioned viewing space is both physical and psychological. American Falls, the keystone to the current exhibition, is a three-channel installation weaving a somewhat linear (though experimentally executed) expression of the history of America as it chronicles “the fallen” in this history and the falling of America as a country. This work was originally commissioned for and displayed in The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s rotunda. This round exhibition space at the Corcoran is quite large with a 43 foot diameter and 13 ft high walls that become the surrounding screens (1). A viewer at the Corcoran would be surrounded with the active images of history that Washington D.C. is steeped in; icons and images twice-human scale, bringing weight and life to national history otherwise neatly displayed in vitrines.
Though displayed very professionally at Young Projects, this installation does not work within the viewing space. Comprised of images of american history transformed through meticulously hand crafted film (later transferred for digital display), each frame has been mined for all of the depth and intrigue that physically and chemically manipulated celluloid can provide, yet American Falls feels flat. Through this process of creation, images are often high contrast sepia forms that, when strung together, become a choreography of iconography. As flattened icons, they do not subvert themselves as Warhol’s iconic images of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor do; they still are in a direct relationship with dusty history books or overused stories. The Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King, Benjamin Franklin: viewers see them but gain no greater understanding of them or their relationship to each other than what they already know. There is also a recurring literal motif of falling: Buster Keaton, elephants, skaters – all creatures fall. This directness seems like illustration and not the elegant metaphor often found within Solomon’s work.
The multiple frames of the three channel installation occasionally break off into screen relationships of 2:1 (two side panels and a center) or 1:1:1 (all images the same or all images different). The juxtaposition of the screens is sometimes playful and smart, such as the instance of the two side screens of transcontinental railroad cars sandwiching a running buffalo, but often just feel like more of the same thing (such as with images of both a young and older Amelia Earhart), rather than a potential for meaning through simultaneous time-based placement. The somber, somewhat droning soundtrack leads but seemingly without a destination. Small burst of dialog and an occasional crescendo temper the the audio and give you clues into where you might be within the total running time of the work, but do not provide heightened insight to the visual text. With a duration of 56 minutes, the work while abstract, still feels like a linear work that should be watched in its entirety, which is a very demanding request of an installation viewer.
Empire is a work that can take a casual viewing. Its meaning can be understood quite quickly while its visual understanding unfolds in time, perhaps best over multiple engagements.
American Falls, as well as Muybridge at the Falls (commissioned as part of a Muybridge Retrospective at the Corcoran) and The Emblazoned Apparitions (commissioned for the upcoming film What is Cinema?) are all works that are from the same visual era in Solomon’s work: familiar archival footage optically printed and hand-manipulated to create a flow of rich brown tones that feel like they burning and disintegrating as they are displayed. They are all smart works with a great depth of sources and allusions. Most importantly, they are all commissioned works and are probably best left to the environments for which they were commissioned, though this greatly limits the potential audience for these works that took years to create. Their physical and conceptual framework in those spaces would create depth that displayed elsewhere are alluded to, but never materialize. In the Corcoran, the question of intermingling real images and Hollywood recreations to create a common history might be better realized, life more present in Muybridge images too often reproduced as flattened and gray, and the sequence featuring an obscured boat name may provide the answer for the question of the film What is Cinema? At Young Projects the viewer is set up in an oppositional relationship with American Falls; a viewer against the entire history of America, as opposed to being surrounded by and part of it at the Corcoran.
The rest of the works in the exhibition showcase Solomon’s trademark use of manipulation. In older works such as The Snowman, and Remains to be Seen this manipulation is a direct physical intervention with the 16mm film, scratched and optically printed. The surface interaction obscures and creates rhythm. It softens and makes approachable the mournful sadness in these works about the loss of Solomon’s parents. The physicality parallels the thin veil between life and death. From a different era, Last Days in a Lonely Place and Psalm IV: Valley of the Shadow use glitches and elaborately constructed game play to create delicate, emotive experimental narratives with machinima technology. In Solomon’s game world, there is a lot of fog and rain, and like the earlier 16mm films included in the exhibition, there is sadness. Bridges flip over endlessly, fire trucks spray water onto empty movie theater marquees, and small wispy butterflies hover over misty blowing green ground cover. These spaces depicted are mostly empty and dark; forgotten areas in an artificially created universe. Machinima has become popular, even within the art world within the past few years, but Solomon’s use of this as a tool stands apart. Not focusing on the game play as a metaphoric construct or the characters, Solomon uses the technology as a camera onto a world that could never be.
Even these single channel works, some of which also screened during an the REDCATtheater during the course of the exhibition, are better suited for the viewing space of the big screen rather than that of the smaller gallery. These works have distinct beginnings and endings and casual viewer may have a hard time finding an entry point into the dense structure if they come across the work in the middle of the screening. However the viewing space of the gallery, though compromised, is better than not seeing them at all, which is often the fate of short experimental works. Aside from single evening screenings, the work is often hard to access. Are these works installations? No, they are projected single channel works and if a viewer accepts this construct from the beginning, and leave enough time to view works in their entirety, the exhibition at Young Projects can be a very rewarding experience.
The work that is most properly at home in the exhibition is Empire. A playful nod to Warhol’s work of the same name, Solomon uses the machinima engine of Grand Theft Auto IV to create a new vision of the 24 hour view of the Empire State Building in game time, which equals 48 minutes. Warhol’s work was completed in 1964 before the construction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and Solomon’s Empire is completed after their destruction in 2001. Their visual absence within the frame is noticed and important. Empire is a work that can take a casual viewing. Its meaning can be understood quite quickly while its visual understanding unfolds in time, perhaps best over multiple engagements. In Empire a plane flies into the middle of the screen and disappears, and day gives way to night again and again, as the work loops and life goes on.
An artist’s choices about the display space of moving image work are as fundamental to the work as the content itself. The exhibition at Young Projects showcases some while creating a non-optimized environment for others. Solomon’s dedication to the space of the technical manipulated frame is felt throughout the exhibitions, finding its point of origin in the medium itself. Though the medium is not the message, Solomon’s detail to execution needs to be as robust when thinking about the the space of display as it was in the moment of the creation of each frame in order for the work to fully achieve its potential.