Abstract Still Life Portrait

ABSTRACT STILL LIFE PORTRAIT, Art Monthly, Issue 156, May 1992.

Kettles Yard Cambridge, March 14th-April 19th, 1992.

Kettles Yard has mounted an exciting show of three new video installation work in association with Moviola. The works are all connected by a thematic relationship to traditional painting genres, which according to the exhibition catalogue are ‘subjects which have obsessed artists for centuries’. One of the declared intentions of the show is to provide an insight into the form of the video installation through a linking of these traditional ‘fine art’ themes with notions of the popular televisual culture of which video art forms an extreme edge. This idea of exploiting the ‘marginal’ position of a relatively new form to challenge traditional assumptions is of course not new, and in his introduction to the catalogue Charles Esche acknowledges that this strategy results in only a very brief disjuncture to the status quo. Nevertheless, this recognition of video’s potential within the gallery context is encouraging especially if it heralds the beginning of a more enlightened attitude on the part of gallery curators and exhibition organisers to the work of artists using video. In the exhibition catalogue’s accompanying essay, Mararina Benjamin suggests that the very act of using video creatively is subversive. This, she claims, is the alternative use of a medium ‘overwhelmingly identified with pu]p and mass culture’. This conscious intention to subvert is clearly apparent in Katharine Meynell’s Eat Video. Made up of two principle elements – a rather faded fresco, the projected video image of a formal supper, and a 5 screen version of the same scene – the monitors were suspended in a line with the image unfolding sequentially. These static configurations were in counterpoint to a careful orchestration of images: a child crosses through the frame, defiantly walking on the table, becoming almost a symbol for Meynell’s desire to shock her audience. The deliberate juxtaposition of foods which are read as symbolic, such as milk with blood, and the montage of sexual activities and bodily functions is refreshingly up-front. Paradoxically, the rich texture Meynell has woven underpins a kind of revulsion, a portrayal of the darker side of human sensuality rather than a celebration of its pleasures. Vampire Seat, a small-scale work almost hidden in a little alcove, comprises a single LCD screen embedded into the cushion of a chair, the image and sounds of a licking tongue slurping against the glass, conjuring up numerous horrors: ‘Castrating mouth, mouth that you sit on to draw menstrual blood, eater of babies…’. Drawing on themes which connect it to her larger piece, Meynell’s Vampire Seat benefits from its humour and simplicity. Surprisingly this piece was the only work in the exhibition to function significantly as sculpture, playing against the functional intentions of the chair in an almost Dadaist fashion. Of the fine art disciplines mentioned in the catalogue, sculpture would have been the most pertinent, and yet it is strangely absent from any discussion. Descry by Judith Goddard consisted of a line of seven large monitors arcing across one end of a white room. Everything in this space was white, even the floor, which was thickly carpeted, adding to the Hi- Tech, almost affluent atmosphere. Facing the arc in the centre of the opposite wall was a single monitor displaying the close-up sequence of an eye operation. In stark contrast to Eat Video, Descry seems cool, detached, the images distant. The main display flowing across seven screens was reminiscent of Mararia Vedder’s Sparkle & Fire, a stately sweeping image sometimes the colours of the visible spectrum, at others a swimming fish or the exploding brilliance of fireworks. Synchronised to the lyrical sounds of The Japanese Cherry Tree Song, the work was a technical tour de force, less an installation in the sculptural sense and more a beautifully paced spectacle, its themes of nature and artifice at times all but obscured by the surface gloss.
In The House Of Love by Monika Oechsler displayed five tall aluminium p]inths each topped with a video monitor. Taking the theme of portraiture, Oechsler gave us five talking heads-five characters who play out aspects of a relationship which seems doomed, their isolation symbolised by their disjointed monologues. Suspended from the ceiling above these plinths were large board game patterns, familiar symbols of competition and gamesmanship. There was a sense that the work was an attempt to bring together numerous personal references around a central theme of identity. These symbols are not always easily decipherable, sometimes too personal, occasionally too obvious, for example a man wearing headphones to signify ‘men do not listen’. Her use of technique was disappointing too, relying on the tired effect of strobing/ freeze-frame to disrupt the familiarity of the video image. The overall effect of the work was one of distancing and alienation and this supports a conclusion that the isolation of each figure is inevitable. Taken as a whole, ‘ Abstract Still Life Portrait’ was a very coherent show. The three meticulously staged works complemented each other and exploited the space beautifully. There was an integrity to the overall conception which allowed the artists the scope to explore their individual themes and gave the visitor the rare opportunity to re-examine traditional subject matter.