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So Transparent

The BMA Makes Some Ambitious Projections With An Exhibit Of Slide-Art

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: The Baltimore Museum of Art’s SlideShow uses phsychologically charged images to stir viewers’ emotions. Included in the show are (from top) A still from “Projections: Helen Levitt in Color, 1971-’74;” A still from Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; still from James Coleman’s Slide Piece and Willie Doherty’s “Same Difference.”

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/2/2005

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through May 15

Nothing greets you at the entrance to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s impressive new exhibit SlideShow. And it’s one of the more poignant uses of nothing you’re ever likely to see. Ceal Floyer’s “Auto Focus” is little more than a slide projector sitting on an elevated stand, projecting a rounded-cornered rectangle of light against the wall. It’s a wittily deadpan piece spotlighting the simple apparatus powering the entire show, the first ever devoted to slides, but it’s also an ingeniously fecund piece that mines the psychology at play in the works themselves. Everything that follows is just an image shone against a screen, and what we read from them is a product of what’s there and what we project onto them. “Auto Focus” calibrates the brain for what’s to come, and in the galleries that follow is an ocean-wide pool of humor, drama, natural wonder, abstraction, creepy intimacy, and wild fantasy that fills this white void.

As curated by BMA curator for prints, drawings, and photographs Darsie Alexander, the 19 works in SlideShow tell the story of how artists turned this simple technology into a creative medium as malleable as any, and in some cases exploited for uses only it can achieve. Though the accompanying exhibit catalog locates the modern slide show in an art-historical context of shining light through painted glass slides that were popular entertainments in the 1800s, all the work here dates from 1968 to 2002, a concentrated pocket of activity that owes as much to the emergence of the medium as an artistic tool as to the cultural perception shifts of the times.

The galleries are divided into four sections—the contemporary art of slide projection, narrative, performance art, and conceptualism—that provide rough-hewn umbrellas for the works, a maze of dark rooms. SlideShow by necessity is a low-light show, and it’s not until you’ve ventured into the third or fourth gallery that you realize how often the museum experience is defined by its brightly illuminated, white-walled boxes. SlideShow, with its background ambient noise of the arrhythmical sfftchunk of the projector’s carousel moving (the soundtrack to many an afternoon nap in art-history class) keenly recognizes that slide works are as much an environment experience as a visual one. And it’s in the recognizing of the slide-show experience that unlocks their historical nexus.

Jonathan Monk’s cheekily self-aware 2002 “One Moment in Time (Kitchen)” satirizes one aspect of that experience. This series of slides toys with the family vacation slide show, only where the photos would normally be of somebody’s parents looking peckish on some overseas sightseeing tour (e.g., the sort of opportunistic whimsy that powers the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players), Monk’s slides are insouciant verbal descriptions of just such a snapshot. For a cycle of 80 slides, you get white text on a bluish-black screen reading terse, extemporaneous titles such as “You in Hong Kong,” “Me and You in the South of France,” and “Glasgow (I think),” the casual descriptions more interesting than seeing the images themselves. It’s an oddly compelling bluntness—for a brief moment you imagine yourself in Hong Kong with the silly tourist smile across the face—that taps into slide works’ pliant subjectivity.

It’s a point-of-view steering wheel that Willie Doherty, Marcel Broodthaers, and Helen Levitt each turns to different effect. Primarily a black-and-white documentary-style photographer, Levitt’s “Projections: Helen Levitt in Color 1971-74” presents a series of 40 New York street scenes, unrelated except that they were all captured through her lens. Each image itself is a powerfully self-contained mini-drama of the mundane—women in front of a beauty shop, people walking down the street—that digested en masse forms an ethnographic visual essay about daily New York life.

Broodthaers’ 1973 “Bateau Tableau” takes his slide essay into subversively silly ends, while skewering the art-history slide presentation. For this, Broodthaers has photographed a single amateur maritime scene of a boat in roiling waters, and uses the camera like a scalpel, taking details of the ship’s flag, wave crests, the hull, and in some instances taking such extreme closeups that the slide becomes an abstraction of crenelated brush strokes on canvas. It’s a charmingly casual exercise in visual autopsy: By the time Broodthaers has combed over the painting, you’ve both forgotten what the original painting looks like in toto and don’t really care.

Doherty’s 1990 “Same Difference” projects the same image of suspected IRA terrorist Donna Maguire against two opposing walls; over each image appears captions decrying/saluting her (murderer, pitiless, etc. reads one set, loyal, volunteer, etc. the other). It never forms a consensus of opinion, though Maguire stays the same, her dark eyes looking back at you, indifferently enigmatic.

These three works couldn’t be more similar yet different. They appear in different sections of SlideShow, but they perfectly encapsulate the unique gifts of this medium: an implied sense of narrative even if it’s unintended and a psychological skein that’s permeable from all sides. The two works that push these aspects to extremes are the cornerstone slide works and the standout pieces of the exhibit: Nan Goldin’s 1979-’96 The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and James Coleman’s 1972 Slide Piece.

The audio narration that comes with Coleman’s Slide Piece offers some 40 minutes of calm, collected readings of a single image: a rather dull photo in a European city, a pair of cars in the foreground left, a few trees scattered in the foreground right, a gas station in front of a multistory building. The image is monumentally ordinary, but the audio commentary excavates heaps of meanings out of this single frame. Narrated in an affectless nondescriptly British monotone that makes you think of voice-over ads for Masterpiece Theatre, the voice steadily leads you through a series of possible events, moods, and story lines based entirely on evidence in the photo. He directs your eye to a closed blind in a window on the third story of the building and speculates as to why that blind would be closed. A branch jutting oddly from one of the trees provides a perfect opportunity for the voice to go literally out on a limb of inspired inference to wander from what we see to maybe how we could feel. It takes you a few minutes to realize that this seemingly busy city scene is absent of people—one figure may be standing in the background on the other side of a parked car, but it’s impossible to tell—and yet you draw all these possible human emotions and stories from it based entirely on the accompanying narration.

Goldin’s Ballad is the Ulysses of the slide show. A projection installation of almost 700 slides and accompanying soundtrack, Ballad is a fever dream of Goldin’s sometimes painfully honest and starkly intimate photography, shots of friends and lovers, users and abusers, in bars, beds, living rooms, and bathrooms. It’s a fireworks display of early-’80s Lower East Side living as seen and lived by Goldin’s camera. Hypnotic, disarmingly joyous, and infused with a palpable sense of the thrilling dangers of eros, Ballad both chronicles the flowering weed of NYC’s early-1980s art explosion and is the era’s signature work, a moving, manic contradiction of the personal and epic.

If Ballad is slide art’s high-water mark, SlideShow locates it in the continuum that started in the late 1960s to early ’70s with Lothar Baumgarten, Dan Graham, the unstoppable Jack Smith, and performance artists such as Ana Mendieta and James Melchert. This era of rampant experimentation neatly encompasses the very emergence of slides as a medium. Artists flirted with the tools of mass production (think of Warhol turning to screen-printing), and works themselves began to reflect an increasingly fragmented reality that seeped into avant-garde and popular art. Slides as a medium were more readily capable of reflecting and subverting this reality.

Just consider the other boundary-pushing creative leaps that shaped this era. What are the so-called landmark jump cuts of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle if not the sort of slide progression between two still images? The inventive pursuit of narratives in a single image nicely complements the meticulous scrutiny devoted to singular events found in the fiction of writers such as Donald Barthelme, Joseph McElroy, Italo Calvino, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. And the barely endurable minutes of a series of static images that concludes Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse is the cousin to Chris Marker’s still-image La Jetée, a photographic exploration of emotional vertigo that finds it richest return in Goldin’s Ballad. Slide works by their very nature are creative extrapolations of Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov’s experiments in film editing, whereby he showed subjects images of an actor’s face followed by another image and asked them what they felt. Slides act as the constantly editable connect-disconnect between what we see and what we think/feel. And SlideShow allows these works to come alive in a way that very few contemporary art exhibitions rarely dare.

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