by Joe Nolan
Last night I got down to the ZieherSmith pop-up gallery in its 12th Avenue storefront at the bottom of the ICON building to find I had gotten there so early that I was, at this point, the only guest in the place — which is just how I like it. I'd missed the opening of Bread Box this past weekend due to other First Saturday commitments, so I was looking forward to seeing the show without the hassle of an opening-night crowd.
I'd made way through 5 o'clock traffic to see the program of videos the gallery had put together for a special mid-week screening. I love video art as a medium, but much of it misses the mark. Nowadays you can shoot high definition video with a cell phone, and while that YouTube clip of that guy getting his balls racked by the billy goat at the petting zoo might make an afternoon in your cubicle more bearable, I don't think anyone would argue that it should be projected on a gallery wall.
Last night's selection was consistently compelling and thought-provoking, and an attentive, thoughtful audience gathered for the experience. I sat down in the darkness at the beginning of the screening, excited to find a favorite among the four flicks on offer. I stood up in the bright light about 40 minutes later wanting to revisit the high points of every little movie.
Christian Jankowski's “The Holy Artwork” screened at the Cheekwood Museum of Art as part of their 100 Artists See God exhibit back in 2006. Even though I'd seen the piece before, it was a pleasure to revisit it. The video finds Jankowski filming an evangelical preacher from the pews among the worshipers at a Sunday church service. The preacher points the artist out and calls him up front. Just as they begin to shake hands, Jankowski collapses to the floor and the preacher looks into another camera, directly addressing both the church's gathered throng and the gallery viewer in a pedagogical lesson about art and the Christian Trinity.
Jankowski often works with non-artists. The video is shot in a real church and the preacher — a born showman/shaman — delivers a compelling, convincing, colorful sermon of his own devising, ending with a prayer. The video is remarkably sincere and nearly subversive in its lack of irony — but beware: I have yet to get the praise team's song out of my head.
Former MTSU professor Tom Thayer was represented by “Old Smelly Haircut.” A great sample of the kind of contemporary surrealism the artist is known for, “Haircut” is a black-and-white, stop-motion animation of disturbing domestic scenes set to the artist's own insistent lo-fi rhythms.
Thayer's piece felt almost like a music video and the after-screening-beer-chat addressed the fine line between fine art and music video that artist Allison Schulnik walks with her contribution “Mound.” A hallucinatory onslaught of gorgeous clay animation, “Mound” seems to take place in an undefined afterlife, featuring ghostly creatures, melting skulls, shrouded figures, and lots of long, stringy white hair. This danse macabre is set to the sepulchral baritone of Scott Walker singing “It's Raining Today.” It's gorgeous and Schulnik's videos put her 2-D work in perspective: The inches of gooey paint on Schulnik's piece in the gallery show can almost be regarded as a still from one of her sensual, sculptural films.
Avery Lawrence's “Moving a Tree” has all the elements of a bad art video: an artist, filming himself, acting out a peculiar performance. Luckily for Lawrence — and last night's audience — he avoids every pitfall that can unravel this type of documentation. Lawrence has a charismatic screen presence, and his choice to turn the camera on himself is a damn good one. His activity of climbing a tree with a rock-climbing harness only to saw all of the branches off is surprising. His decision to then harness lineman's spikes to his boots, climb to the top of the trunk and saw it to the ground in chunky sections offers another left turn. He carries the pieces up a hill in order reassemble them in the confines of a massive wooden scaffold — a move that comes out of nowhere. The scaffolding rises up, around and above the reconstructed tree, and floats into the sky as the artist walks toward the camera and out of the frame. It feels almost miraculous, as if one has actually seen some of the “holy art” that the preacher in Jankowski's video spoke about so eloquently.
The whole evening was rounded off by this great YouTube nugget that says more about “who” a creative person may be than some episodes of Art21.
Earlier this week, Laura Hutson offered up her favorites from the gallery show. Interestingly, we seem to have seen two different exhibitions. This is a good thing.
As a bonus, here's a live version of Scott Walker praising Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation before a live rendition of “It's Raining Today.”