Video at TBA’s The Works

TBA is Portland, Oregon’s Time Based Art festival, a group of performance, dance, music, and visual happenings hosted by the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art.  The visual portion of the festival is held at what the institute refers to as “The Works,” an abandoned circa-1910 redbrick former high school.  It’s an iconic building: if you grew up in the 80s watching after-school specials (or if you’ve ever seen a John Hughes film) this building could serve as the prototype.  This year’s selection of videos installed at The Works varies considerably in style, length, and subject matter.  Given the venue, one could consider it a very liberal arts education.

John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum. Still from film.

John Smith‘s 1976 The Girl Chewing Gum is a black and white film depicting the everyday life of a London street.  At first, the authority of the voiceover narration seems like instructions given by a film director, but over the video’s twelve minutes the narration devolves into mere description and then confusion.  What begins as a commanding presence—masterful instructions given by the voice just as each action is about to unfold—breaks down into a struggle to keep up with the crowded scene.  Finally, the view switches completely to a slow pan over English countryside, even as the traffic noise from the original scene continues.  This is an incredibly simple gesture that creates poignancy and depth.  As understanding dawns that the narrator is not, in fact, directing the actions on screen, the viewer’s recognition shifts.  What starts as the audio of a man who directs his world turns into a man desperate to control his environment (or at least maintain the illusion of doing so), until finally there is a psychic (and literal) break with the scene altogether.

Yemenwed, Episode 3. Still from video.

Smith’s thirty-year-old work still holds up conceptually, but it’s anyone’s guess how the other videos in the exhibition will fare over time.  Charles Atlas‘s Tornado Warning (2008) is a five-channel installation of strong technical proficiency.  It is the only video-based work in the building that addresses its physical space by means of a built environment and moving lights; unfortunately the projections look an awful lot like a cross between Op art and the code-drenched computer screens from The Matrix.  In another room is artist group Yemenwed‘s Episode 3, a combination of animation, painting, sculpture, and live-action video.  The visuals are cleverly done, but if there is a narrative to the meanderings of the main character, who ambles through a constructed and animated space with some kind of hobbles/casts on her legs, it is not apparent.

Christopher Miner, The Safest Place. Still from video.

Christopher Miner‘s The Safest Place features a man revolving slowly in the zero-gravity atmosphere of a space capsule.  His knees are drawn up to his chest and his arms are wrapped around his knees.  The soundtrack of a man’s voice singing is unaccompanied, but there is a heavy reverb/echo on the voice and it’s impossible to make out the words.  That’s too bad, as upon reading the exhibition booklet one learns that they comprise the lines of a modest hymn.  Part of the artistry behind The Girl Chewing Gum is that Smith sets up a very simple system and then disrupts it; Miner’s video has the same kind of confident simplicity overall, but in its present state allows no room for a secondary layer of meaning to come into play.  Clearer audio might have provided that.

Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Piano Print (2010). Wood cut print, approximately 70 x 60 inches.

Two of the rooms on the second floor contain videos as part of larger installations of more traditional visual art.  Jessica Jackson Hutchins‘s Children of the Sunshine is visually spare and elegant.  Four prints, two of which are taken from her family piano, hang on the walls.  In the center of the room is the actual baby grand: carved, scarred and careworn.  These evocative objects would be enough: the prints are beautiful, with deep black ink providing a backdrop for smeary colors and bulbous papier-mâché protrusions or large burn holes.  The piano—small, dirty, pitted with childish carvings—stands as emblem of home, family, and a middle-class childhood.  Unfortunately, the poetry of the room is completely upset by the cacophonous video on the flatscreen monitor in one corner.  In it, Hutchins’s family of singer-musicians chants a nearly atonal chorus of “we are children of the sunshine, we are children of the sunshine” over and over while banging, blowing, or plonking on various instruments.  I regret that this teeth-gritting and superfluous aural torture not only drove me out of the room, but also continues to haunt me as I write this.

The next room—blissfully quiet, but still prickly—is Storm Tharp‘s High House, an assemblage of objects that toes an uneasy line between studio and gallery. There are hand-labeled jars of paint and plants lining the windowsill; there are color-field canvases hung in a grid, and a fan that blows two silk scarves appliquéd with NOT THE LAST TIME.  A video displays a curtain billowing in the frame of a sliding-glass door.  In the middle of the room, a pristine white staircase rises above head height and leads nowhere.  Tharp has seen many successes in the last few years, including the Whitney Biennial, and this room feels like a web of clues that provide a glimpse into the mental state of an artist on the edge of something really big.  The vibe here is uncertainty; the ambiguity of being poised in a position of near-flight (up the white stairs, out the breezy video doorway), choosing between public glory and private life.