at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through November 27

Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1951, Gary Hill was a surfer and skateboarder as a kid. At 15 he began making welded sculpture, and in his early 20s he began making video art. One of the seven video sculptures now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Learning Curve (Still Point), makes reference to his youth. It includes a chair of the type used in schools, with the arm that becomes a desk extending many feet in front of it–a long triangular plane that gradually tapers to about four inches, as if receding almost to a vanishing point. At the narrow end sits a tiny video monitor that displays a loop, only a few seconds long, of a large, curling wave breaking again and again.

One meaning is obvious: if the exaggerated desk describes a student’s feeling of being oppressed by schoolwork, the image at the end depicts this schoolboy surfer’s daydream. But the silent image is so far away it’s almost invisible, and the endless repetition soon transforms it into a piece of video formalism. The work actually describes the impossibility of the student’s dream. The structure of his reality–the desk–distances him from the imagery, which is itself only the smallest, palest evocation of the massive wave it depicts.

Hill’s vision is one of fragmentation, doubt, and the distance between images and their subjects. There’s a perpetual tension between each work’s primary subject, presented as pieces of imagery taken from an outer world that the viewer is trying to see whole, and the divided and distanced way that imagery is presented.

This is also clear in another autobiographical work, Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine). Thirty monitors high on a wall form a band that recalls an ultrawide cinema screen, though the narrowness of the band suggests a slit more than a full cinema image. Virtually all the images are of two naked bodies–Hill’s and an ex-girlfriend’s. But we see each body only in fragments–hips, breasts, an ankle, hands, genitals. The images are shown only briefly, often for only a fraction of a second, and only a few monitors are lit up at any one time. The overall effect is of body parts darting back and forth, in a flickering, almost spastic rhythm, across the band.

There may be a love story here, but what kind? For every moment when the bodies seem to merge there’s another when they’re apart; for every segment in which connected images present a large part of a body there are two or more of utter fragmentation. At times adjacent monitors present connected parts of a single body, sometimes in a kind of moving pan across it, with monitors on one side going dark while those on the other light up without the body itself seeming to move. But then Hill does a similar thing with images of nonadjacent body parts.

Some images last only an instant, some flicker on and off, others linger several seconds. A single image will appear to dart across the band: as the monitor displaying it grows dark the one just to the right lights up, and so on. At one point several related views of the woman move from right to left, until suddenly they seem to separate, with several close views of her lips moving to the right while the original cluster remains at the left. The work lasts less than two minutes, then repeats, but it takes a number of viewings to see that it’s repeating.

At once sensuous and staccato, involving and alienating, the work seems to present a relationship as an equal mixture of intimacy and separateness. As the bodies rapidly alternate with each other–seeming to converge, then splitting apart–each image becomes like a word stripped out of its context: a few of the surrounding “words” are retained, enough to suggest some meaning but never enough to fix it.

If the couple is both united and riven, if meaning is both present and destroying itself in multiplicity, the viewer’s experience is similarly split. The content of the images might seem to encourage voyeurism; close-ups of body parts would normally allow the viewer to feel an erotic intimacy, however anonymous, with the couple. But to see the whole image band one must be on the other side of the room, too far away to see any image clearly. Walk closer to get a detailed view of a few monitors, and you find that each monitor is dark most of the time. Hill isn’t simply playing games here. In each of his works he finds several different ways to give equal weight to unity and disunity, to image as an expression of knowledge and of incompleteness or doubt.

Hill has remarked, “If I have a position, it’s to question the privileged place that image, and for that matter sight, holds in our consciousness.” House of Cards presents another domestic tale–images of a couple, their voices, and pictures of (presumably) the house they live in–in a way that denies any image primacy. Each appears both imperfect as a representation of any outer reality and incomplete in itself. The work occupies a room of its own. On one wall are two monitors several feet apart that display color images of the couple’s faces, the woman on the left and the man on the right. On the opposite wall is a kind of ladder with five monitors showing black-and-white images of the interior of a house. Speakers under each monitor play the sound of the man or woman’s voice reading a text.

The viewer is immediately confronted with a choice. One can look at the ladder and ignore the faces, look at the faces and ignore the ladder, or look at both from an angle that makes it hard to see either well. Clearly the work can be apprehended only in time, viewing one set of images while holding the memory of the other.

The spoken text is only a few minutes long, but the footage of the house is much longer, so words and phrases are repeated over ever-changing images of the interior. The faces are never seen whole; instead we get extreme close-ups as the camera moves slowly around them. The house interior is also seen in narrow slivers; the five monitors show adjacent spaces of a room as the camera moves slowly in circular arcs from wall to ceiling to wall to floor and back again, each time revealing a new narrow band of the room. When one image of a ceiling is relatively bright the adjacent image, which includes part of the ceiling and part of an outdoor view, shows the ceiling as dark, because that camera’s automatic light meter is stopping down to correct for the much brighter outdoor scene. This difference and the ladder rungs that enclose each monitor remind us that every image is a product of its maker’s selections and of the technology that created it–another way in which Hill undercuts the power of his imagery.

The last word of a phrase spoken by one voice becomes the first word of a phrase spoken by the other, though sometimes they speak the same words together. This exchange suggests a kind of intimacy, but Hill’s enigmatic text also implies that the communication is less than perfect. (“Here are my promises promises you keep within reason breaking and entering the home with the name home . . .”) Just as the narrow perspective offered of both faces and the home prevents the viewer from ever forming a mental image of the whole, so the text presents language and communication between two people as a hall of mirrors.

Hill isn’t merely depicting relationship problems. As Crux, which uses images only of his own body, makes clear, he sees all imagery, indeed all knowledge obtained through the senses, as inherently limited and limiting. To make Crux he strapped five video cameras to his body and taped his hands, feet, and head as he walked about Bannerman’s Island, which contains a ruined castle, in upstate New York. The work is presented on five monitors placed in the approximate positions of hands, feet, and head, which gives them the shape of a cross. The crucifixion reference is heightened by the fact that his feet and hands are most often seen flat.

Hill, doubtless weighed down by his equipment, moves slowly, tentatively. His face is tense, with the expression of a tightrope walker. His bare feet tread uneasily over stones; we also see him descend steps, touch branches, pick up twigs and soil, grab hold of a tree. The feeling is of someone learning to walk, see, and touch for the first time, of a child’s early explorations of the world.

But rather than celebrate the seemingly limitless possibilities of a childlike viewpoint, as independent filmmakers like Stan Brakhage have done, Hill insists on the limitations of sense data. We see hands, feet, and head in long takes that make them seem trapped in themselves, so that it seems a tiny miracle when a hand touches a branch. Walking itself, that most natural of bodily activities, becomes hesitant, unnatural; Hill’s stop-and-start rhythms seem full of doubt. By focusing on Hill’s sense-gathering extremities more than on what they touch or see, the video cameras suggest that human perception is as limited as the video image, producing only partial, selective pictures.

But the work is more than an academic declaration of the limits of representation, because it also suggests a realm beyond imagery. The five monitors are displayed far apart on a blank wall so that most of the field we look at is black. But looking at this void one can imagine the rest of Hill’s body, imagine the vast spaces of the island not shown through the cameras’ narrow eyes, think thoughts that can’t be translated into images. One has to sit through the entire 26-minute piece to get the full effect, because its restrictive, repetitive nature is what encourages the mind to wander, to feel the inherent incompleteness of the images.

At first glance the most recent piece in the show, the 1994 Clover, seems most rooted in the visual. Four monitors are set up next to each other, arranged as if each were the face of a cube. In each of them we see a different man from the back–a camera was strapped to his back–walking forward through a forest. Because the camera doesn’t move in relation to the back and because of the relative flatness of video imagery, the effect is of a false movement forward. One sees trees pass the nearly stationary back, but the forest doesn’t change much. The men seem on a journey to nowhere. Yet if one looks between the monitors it’s clear that any forward movement is also movement into the electronics of the picture tube, toward the electron source that produces the picture. The viewer, bored with walks that lead nowhere, is soon contemplating the artificial nature of the video image itself.

It’s clear from the essays in the helpful, though occasionally pretentious, catalog that one of Hill’s influences is French writer Maurice Blanchot, one of whose themes is the limiting subjectivity of languages–a parallel with Hill’s suspicion of imagery. Another influence seems to have been the surfing of his youth. He describes the surfer’s quest for the “green room”–presumably the space inside the curl of a wave–as a mystical quest for “Being,” and then compares the chaotic quality of television light to “another green room of sorts that we’ve lost control of, that has closed out,” the term for a large wave that has collapsed. In this context the title Clover, referring to the four monitors and perhaps a search for a lucky four-leaf clover, can be seen as thoroughly ironic. The monitors of Clover are set up at eye level to encourage us to come close, but when we do, what Hill calls the “spray of information” of a television display is revealed as an electronic chaos whose rhythms are so alien from those of nature that it seems utter folly to try to use it to depict nature–or nature to depict technology.

The collapsed waves of Hill’s videos depict in part what he calls “a shipwreck of consciousness.” What gives his works their beauty and resonance is the way in which he finds a precise balance between references to an outer reality he knows exists, each work’s inevitable failure to present that fully, and the formal, beautiful reality of the work’s own existence. The repetition of Learning Curve (Still Point), the monotony of Clover, the stylistic contradictions of Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine), the empty spaces of Crux, all lead the viewer away from the work’s visible forms toward an almost unimaginable negation of all imagery, toward an unrepresentable world that lies beyond image and word.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Prinz.