Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 25

By Fred Camper

There’s a slight problem with the big “Art and Film” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art: there isn’t really any film in it. Oh, there are clips on video (which often reduce a feature film to less than a minute), some Warhol “Screen Tests” on video, and four classic avant-garde films actually being shown on film in the galleries (one with the final 20 percent missing), but the galleries are filled with ambient light and lack chairs. Perhaps this should come as no surprise: few museums have ever taken film seriously as an art.

Witness the destructive presentation of one of the avant-garde films, Joseph Cornell’s landmark Rose Hobart (circa 1936). Cornell reduced a low-grade Hollywood kitsch feature, East of Borneo (1931), to 19 minutes, largely by cutting out all the shots that didn’t include the lead actress, his beloved Rose. He also eliminated narrative continuity and causality, introducing something closer to surrealism; projected the film through a blue filter; and replaced the original sound track with music. In the MCA’s presentation, however, the music is barely audible, and the ambient light makes the image so dark it’s stripped of all its allure. On previous viewings the dark blue rectangle always exercised an unaccountable magic, becoming an otherworldly presence similar to the images of actresses enshrined in some of Cornell’s boxes. Here it looks like nothing, and few visitors watch for more than a minute.

But even if the three films being shown complete were being shown well, they’d hardly be enough to “balance” the dozens of artworks displayed. The MCA curator who brought the show here from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) told me that she saw the exhibit as primarily about the influence of film on art. The guest curator who organized it for MOCA, Kerry Brougher, wrote me that he was “trying to find a passage” between film and art, to investigate the way the two have become intertwined. But in order to achieve either goal, one would need to present some actual films.

At MOCA, Brougher wrote, “We built a special theater in the middle of the exhibition and had a program of films that lasted most of the day and was repeated every day.” Conflicting reasons are given for why that wasn’t done here, but that’s not really the point. The MCA was under no obligation to bring us this smaller, traveling version of the show; it could have decided (as at least one other major museum did) that film was inadequately presented and taken a pass on the whole thing. Or it could have organized a more inclusive film program for its spanking new, well-equipped theater. Instead the MCA brought Peter Kubelka, one of the artists in the show, to Chicago for a one-time screening of three of his films. Great, but not enough.

Most of the excerpts from narrative films are being played in two galleries on banks of video monitors on metal and wooden platforms. But these setups are confusingly similar to some of the art, such as Chris Marker’s installation, a tower of five video monitors on which he presents fragments of films. As a result, most gallery visitors, who do not read wall labels, may well think that the films are also installations, designed to be sampled briefly.

If a major museum mounted a show of oils this badly–with the paintings mostly in fragments or on video, and the three complete ones lit so darkly one could barely see the colors–I’d like to think a couple of curators would get fired. In the exhibit’s defense, Brougher points out that Bruce Conner’s avant-garde A Movie and Cornell’s Rose Hobart were first shown as installation pieces in galleries and that Conner and another filmmaker, Tony Conrad, agreed to have their films displayed this way at the MCA. But neither filmmaker viewed the actual light-filled galleries. More to the point, the art of film, like any visual art, depends on the tactile qualities of light and shade and the kinds of visual spaces the images can create. Here, the films are so bleached out that they look like crap. As Kubelka remarked to me at the exhibit’s opening, “If film had looked like this, there never would have been a history of cinema.”

But if one goes without expecting to see any film, this is an excellent and important show. Even the works that are unsuccessful relate well to the exhibition’s themes. Stan Douglas’s Overture (1986), combining an early Edison film with narration from Proust, is leaden and pretentious; Judith Barry’s slide-and-video projection In the Shadow of the City…Vamp r y (1985) treats voyeurism with a syrupy, dissolve-laden slickness that turns her critique to mush. But one would hardly expect to agree with every curatorial choice in a big, messy exhibit like this, which includes a lot of powerful art and explores several ideas in some depth.

Hollywood glamour is a major theme; Cornell wasn’t the only artist obsessed with movie stars. But nowhere is glamour or stardom unquestioningly worshiped; every artist here sees through the glitter to the emptiness behind it. Even the photographs of Hollywood figures by actor-director Dennis Hopper are far from slick. Curtis Harrington, the director of Hopper’s first major film, the cult classic Night Tide, is posed in a 1962 photo against a chaotic, paint-splattered background. In a 1965 shot, George Segal and Sandy Dennis are ghostly figures reflected in glass, apparently hovering over an industrial landscape. Weegee’s star photos are hardly worshipful either. His Jerry Lewis (1953) and Hedda Hopper (1953) isolate his subjects’ grotesqueness: he sets Lewis’s twisted face and Hopper’s bizarre hat against black backgrounds that suggest the void beneath their self-regard.

Andy Warhol is the great poet of glamour. Often seen as a star worshiper, he in fact couples fetishistic adoration with an intense awareness of stardom’s evanescence. Troy Diptych (1962) incorporates multiple images of Troy Donahue, in color on the left and in black and white on the right, but because many of the silk-screened repetitions of his face are blurred or smeared and there are two empty spaces in the grid, it’s almost as if celebrity were vanishing before our eyes. This effect is even stronger in Warhol’s diptych Elvis I and II (1964). For the left side Warhol made two silk screens of a photo of Elvis at his most phallic, posed with legs spread and pointing a gun at us, enhancing the picture’s power by adding bright reds and blues. The two images of the same photo on the right are in black and white; the one on the far right is pale and ghostlike, as if it were fading out. Juxtaposing these with the colored images makes their cartoon colors seem unreal: Warhol understood that the worship of appearances leads to a void, and he raised the idea to the level of poetry.

Other artists pair glamour with its opposite. Bruce Conner’s bizarre, even grotesque assemblages have titles suggesting they’re portraits of movie stars. Homage to Jean Harlow (1963), which combines part of a female figure with torn fabric, hair, a small black-and-white photo, and a swatch of fabric samples, seems to be still “under construction,” just as star images are themselves constructions. Ray Johnson was fascinated by stardom, but in the photo collage Hand Marilyn Monroe (1958) he couples an image of the star with a large hand and covers both with a thick red; much of the image’s upper portion is black. Mimmo Rotella’s two large movie posters (both titled Marilyn Monroe and dated 1963) have been ripped throughout to reveal other posters beneath. Aesthetically the surfaces are vibrant, three dimensional, and dynamic because of the tears, but Rotella also refers to the way new movie posters were plastered over old ones: fame is brief and transitory.

In a way the works related to glamour are part of a larger theme: the idea of looking. All these artists seem to understand, however, that voyeurism and the kind of inner vision often produced by great art are two different things; they often critique our culture’s voyeuristic habits. Five photos from Sharon Lockwood’s “Audition” series (1994) show preteen couples kissing, each in the same featureless indoor setting. Presumably the repetition represents the sameness of TV and movie imagery. But while the wall label refers to the children’s “visible discomfort,” in fact only the girls seem uncomfortable; the boys pose rather suavely. Indeed there’s something unpleasantly manipulative about Lockwood’s series: though she may have intended it to critique media imagery, it’s hard to know whether these posed embraces are part of the solution or part of the problem.

Incisive works by Jeff Wall and Cindy Bernard reveal clearly how much we think of “looking” in terms of looking at people. Wall’s Eviction Struggle (1988) includes his signature large staged photograph illuminated from behind like an advertising sign. This one shows a man in front of his home fighting off two officers trying to evict him while others look on. On the wall behind the photograph are nine video monitors presenting video loops of characters in the scene acting their roles. Because the background–the houses, street, and cityscape–is absent from the video loops, Wall implicitly critiques character-centered movies, which lack the context of the larger scene. Bernard’s “Ask the Dust” series (1989-’91) includes photographs she took of Hollywood locations–the Golden Gate Bridge from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Monument Valley from John Ford’s The Searchers–but without any people present. Like much postmodern art, her series is more a cultural commentary than an autonomous artwork–the eerily empty scenes are a provocative reminder of how character centered Hollywood filmmaking is.

Many of the show’s best works, however, don’t involve looking in the ordinary sense, preferably at a glamorous person, but offer new visions of vision itself. Marker in his tower of five video monitors, Silent Movie (1995), has organized film images, many from silent films, into categories–“The Face,” “The Waltz”–and transferred them to video. The fragments seem to have been chosen for their plasticity and vividness, their dramatic composition and movement–in “The Waltz,” for their literal movement. A computer continually scrambles the order in which the images are seen, producing an extraordinary labyrinth that seems to balance intentionality and randomness: the editing isn’t nearly as determined as Marker’s rather free editing of his own films. Here a hand putting a ring on a finger may turn into a key turning in a lock, suggesting a little narrative; the “editing” creates plastic links between images, which vanish as waves of new images linked in new ways replace them. Marker gives the images just enough structure to allow the imagination to work but never so much as to restrict interpretation. Though the idea of creating one’s own viewing experience has been much celebrated in art and cinema, this is one of the few works that actually allow that to happen. Marker neither worships our culture’s image glut nor treats it as a blinding prison; rather he celebrates it as an infinite maze of imaginative possibility.

Kubelka’s installation of the original 35-millimeter film strips for his 1960 film Arnulf Rainer is just as liberating despite its authoritative absoluteness. Parallel strips, each 144 frames (6 seconds) long, are mounted horizontally a bit above eye level, almost altarlike. Since the film consists only of solid white and solid black frames accompanied by alternating silence and white noise–it was perhaps the first “flicker” film–what one sees is a grid of black and transparent rectangles. Examining it reveals patterns that repeat briefly but are soon replaced by others; I couldn’t find any overall repeating structures. What makes the installation so powerful is the viewer’s sense of enclosure within an unpredictable mechanism that nevertheless contains hidden patterns–a sense one also has watching the film.

Michael Snow’s stunning, brilliant installation Two Sides to Every Question (1974) actually involves projected film. It also returns to the theme of looking yet liberates the viewer from attraction to any one object. Snow filmed a scene in real-time long takes with two cameras facing each other, the “action” in between. Two projectors on either side of a room project these takes, one on each side of a single screen. Thus a woman walking away from the viewer can be seen from the back on one side of the screen and seen walking toward us from the front on the other. (Snow directs on-screen, reading from a script.) The woman sprays a green circle of paint on a sheet of plastic, an action we can see from both sides; a man then cuts the plastic down the middle, which I read as an erotic joke.

Snow’s work is profoundly different from the partly worshipful portrait pieces by other artists here: he utterly confounds the viewer’s sense of space and of the image, unmasking the very mechanisms by which cinema is made. Every face also has a back of the head–rarely seen in Hollywood’s images of Marilyn. Every camera angle represents one choice out of many, not the “true” viewpoint. Just as Kubelka returns to a primal looking at pure light and darkness, just as Marker liberates editing from the patterns of conventional filmmaking, so Snow liberates the viewer and the projector from fixed relationships. Invited to walk around, the viewer finds that the whole space of the “theater,” and as a result the space of the filming it recalls, changes. You also become more aware of the cameras, which of course are always visible: the cameras and the images they captured inhabit a single space. Even more than the other artists in the show, these three deny star fetishism its power, charting a path away from attachment to isolated images and toward a kind of mental and perceptual freedom.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Marilyn Monroe” by Mimmo Rotella.