samedi 22 août 2009

Mungo Thomson (John Connelly Gallery, NY)

Mungo Thomson pairs a distinctly West Coast conceptual sensibility with an interest in cosmology, mysticism, and reception. In Thomson’s diverse art—ranging from films and sound works to publications, drawings, and photographic wall murals—simple processes of inversion and transformation are joined with an expansive sense of space and context. His project for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, for example, transformed the Museum’s coat check into an enormous musical instrument that was “played” by the incidental participation of the public, the weather, and chance. b/w, a sound work on a white vinyl 12” LP, applies a principle drawn from marine audio research—where certain deep-sea recordings are inaudible until sped up 16x—to commercial nature relaxation records. One side of b/w speeds up whole albums of humpback whalesong 16x until they resemble birdsong; the other side slows down tracks from birdsong albums 16x until they resemble whalesong. The “birdsong” plays outside onto 27th Street, the “whalesong” plays inside the gallery. Thomson’s 16mm film, The Varieties Of Experience, was made by using Nam Jun Paik’s Zen For Film (1962-64) as a negative. Zen for Film consists of a length of clear 16mm film leader projecting a rectangle of pure white. Over time, the celluloid collects dust from the space of its exhibition; this dust is projected as brown and black smudges on the otherwise white image. Dust is largely composed of human cells, and in this way the audience of Paik’s work has literally become embedded in it over several decades. Thomson worked with the NJP estate to procure a “dirty” copy of the film and to use it as a negative from which to make a new print. The new film is an inversion of the original: a black film with the dust printed as white specks and clouds—a moving starscape, where the stars are composed of dust (and people) instead of the other way around. Untitled (Margo Leavin Gallery, 1970-) is a new film that groups together a series of fading analog technologies: the business card Rolodex, stop-motion animation, and Super-16mm film. It features the Rolodexes of Margo Leavin Gallery, Thomson’s Los Angeles art gallery. Since it opened in 1970 the gallery has accrued a massive, well-thumbed set of card files containing thousands of contacts, including artists, electricians, framers, collectors, customs officials, and so on. Now that the gallery has established a digital database these cards can be viewed as a historical archive of the wide systemic context oriented around the reception of artworks. These cards have been transposed to Super-16mm film, where each card gets at least one frame (Super-16mm film and Rolodex cards share a common aspect ratio); the result is a spinning card file that echoes the looping of the film through a projector. On film, the archive becomes a procession. Like The Varieties of Experience, Untitled (Margo Leavin Gallery, 1970-) is a kinetic, semi-abstract chronicle of a particular set of relationships, accumulated over decades, around and between audiences and artworks. Thomson’s new drawing project, The Ellipses, is also an archive from a pre-digital moment. These drawings are made, in ink on polyethylene, using commercial drafting templates. These templates are made by a number of different manufacturers, in different styles and for different graphic applications. The shapes punched out of the templates represent every projection of the ellipse shape, on a spectrum of 5 to 85 degrees, between a line at one end and a circle at the other. Filled with black ink on a bright white surface, the negatives of these shapes form warping grids and patterns that take on a strong optical character. The drawings are both by and of the templates. As a group they form a graphic record of another disappearing technology. At the same time their abstraction is meant to be evocative of cosmological phenomena like the the phases of the moon and the elliptical rotation of the planets around the sun.

Casey Ruble:
Long interested in both the subtext and paratext of, well, everything--from Road Runner cartoons to NASA images of outer space--Mungo Thomson has built a career on pulling back curtains to reveal the mechanics of production and reception. For "The Varieties of Experience," the artist used predigital tools to expand on his tried-and-true themes and strategies. Best illustrating this return to older technology was the 2009 Untitled (Margo Leavin Gallery, 1970-), a stop-motion, looped 16mm film featuring various shots of the Rolodexes in Thomson's L.A. gallery. As they spin around, the Rolodexes flip through the names of thousands of contacts the gallery has made since it opened: artists, electricians, framers, collectors, customs officials--all the people that exist around and between artwork and its audience. Sharing the exhibition's title, the other film in the show (from 2008) used Nam Jun Paik's Zen for Film (1962-64) as a negative from which to make a new print. In Paik's piece, a clear 16mm film leader becomes increasingly dirty as it attracts dust from the space in which it is shown; the dust appears as dark spots on the screen's white ground. Noting that dust is largely composed of human skin cells (meaning that the dirty film is a composite of artwork and audience), Thomson reversed Paik's film, transforming the clear space into a black ground, and the dust/audience into white specks reminiscent of stars in a night sky. The vinyl LP b/w (2008) sustained the Zen vibe via ambient relaxation sounds--with a twist. For one side of the record, Thomson sped up humpback whale song until it sounded like birds chirping; for the other, he slowed down birdsong until it mimicked the sound of whales. The resemblance is downright spooky--you would never realize the swap without reading the press release--and knowing you can be so easily fooled is equally unsettling.

Suzanne Hudson:
Elliptical has many meanings, from oval, egg-shaped, or oviform to cryptic, ambiguous, or obscure. It might also denote something that has been abridged or is laconic about its means (which is to say nothing of its effects). Less descriptive than functional, this term surfaced sometimes obliquely - throughout Mungo Thomson's recent show, which was gamely titled "The Varieties of Experience" in dual homage to William James and Carl Sagan (James's seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience was taken up by Sagan as The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a 2006 publication based on his Gifford Lectures on natural theology). The resulting constellation indeed highlighted an "elliptical" tendency in Thomson's art - one that was explicitly shown on his announcement poster, which bore a negative image of a lunar cycle, and one that actively figured in his ambitious drawing project The Ellipses, 2009, an archive of predigital commercial drafting templates. Each template renders a particular oval in variously sized holes; each drawing is a stenciling of one template in black ink on white paper. In aggregate, the twenty-five notations trigger an optical phenomenon worthy of Bridget Riley while also evoking planetary rotation and the visual effluvia of cosmological events more generically. Other works likewise relate to the celestial - at a particularly canny remove. Following the installation of his ongoing project Negative Space at the Hammer Museum last year (large-scale photographic murals of galaxies, culled from an online archive of copyright-free starscape shots taken by the Hubble Space Telescope), The Varieties of Experience, 2008, extended Thomson's wry mysticism. Where Negative Space converts black to white - the dark chasm of outer space becomes the antiseptic pallor of the gallery through Photoshop magic - this film in Super 16 mm is predicated upon a comparable, and comparably site-specific, inversion. Thomson sourced a copy of Nam June Paik's Zen for Film, 1962-64, that had been exhibited enough times to have collected a good amount of dust - as in actual traces of the authence - on its otherwise uncomposed celluloid (Paik's piece famously being either a cliché of Zen emptiness or its most profound articulation) and reprinted it in the reverse: a black film dotted with scattered white masses, a formal registration and physical index of those who had watched it in the past, now rendered as veritably new-agey Stardust. Untitled (Margo Leavin Gallery, 1 970-), 2009, a film that screened on the wall opposite The Varieties of Experience, retrospects an obsolete instrument and the community it mapped. A voyeuristic foray into Thomson's LA dealer's old-school Rolodex - an archive-cumsculptural object now that the gallery has gone digital - Untitled shows a lost art world, with its artists, framers, collectors, and the like flashing by on the cards as a collection of so many names. Some still legible, others wholly obfuscated by stray pen marks or the effects of time, these cards plot relationships among those who make, move, sell, buy, view, and write about artworks. Lest the work seem too nostalgic, an artist's book, California City, 2009, registers Thomson's deep ambivalence about representation and the faith that so often motivates it. The book centers around the namesake Mojave Desert locale, where, in 1989, Maria Paula Acuña claimed to have had an epiphanic encounter with the Virgin Mother, prompting pilgrimages in which people tried capturing their own spiritual visions by snapping Polaroids in the sunbeams. It so happened that December of 2008, when Thomson recorded these latter-day spirit photographs by taking his own pictures of them, "marked the end of instant film manufacture by Polaroid" - an elliptical tribute to holy relics of many kinds, ultimately as unwitting as it is Delphic.

Karen Rosenberg:
The Los Angeles-based conceptualist Mungo Thomson specializes in clever reversals and inversions, tweaking art and ideas of the 1960s and ’70s to make them relevant today. This works about half of the time, if his current show is anything to go by. In the title work Mr. Thomson obtained a dusty copy of Nam June Paik’s “Zen for Film” (1962-64), a clear film leader that looks, when projected, like a blank canvas. He made a negative print of Paik’s film, in which specks of dust flicker across a black rectangle. The transformation isn’t sufficient, and the spirit of the original work remains intact. “Untitled (Margo Leavin Gallery, 1970-),” a 16-millimeter film of the ancient Rolodexes once used by Mr. Thomson’s Los Angeles gallery, works on a more profound level. Though clearly indebted to Rodney Graham’s film of his 1930s German typewriter, Mr. Thomson’s project meditates on a different kind of obsolescence: social rather than technological. The Rolodex cards are set in motion by an invisible hand and filmed from various angles. There’s a poetic equivalence between the spinning cards and the rotating film projector, but just as interesting are the contacts that flash by: artists, curators, dealers, critics, celebrities who happen to collect. It evokes a time when the whole art world could fit into a single card file.

Colby Chamberlain:
Today there are more 16-mm projectors in New York’s galleries than in its movie theaters, and it’s common to blame this profusion of celluloid on a nostalgia-fueled vogue for obsolete technologies. Two 16-mm pieces at the core of Mungo Thomson’s solo exhibition suggest a more compelling possibility: that only now, at analog’s twilight, can we appreciate its heretofore unnoticed quirks. In the digital era, transposition––the twisting of one medium into another––comes easily; the zeros and ones move fluidly from one format to the next. Thomson’s films demonstrate that transposition among analog technologies, by contrast, is an intuitive operation, depending on slant rhymes and producing unlikely resonances. In The Varieties of Experience, 2008, Thomson takes Nam June Paik’s 1962–64 Zen for Film––a blank white reel with only some accumulated dust to differentiate the frames––and turns it into a negative. Thus reversed, the errant dust specks become flickering stars in a night sky, and Paik’s original now harks back to August Strindberg’s 1890s celestographs (photographic plates where Strindberg mistook a chemical processing error for the revelation of distant cosmos). In Untitled (Margo Leavin Gallery, 1970–), 2009, Thomson homes in on the curious affinity between film reels and Rolodexes. Brought to life by Gumby-style stop-motion animation, the Rolodex flips through contact cards like so many film frames; the instruments of social networking become an instance of montage. The Rolodex in question, owned and maintained by Los Angeles’s Margo Leavin Gallery, bristles with notable names that leave an afterimage. CASTELLI, KOSUTH, SARET, JUDD: The index of a textbook on postwar American art goes flashing by, complete with phone numbers, and a vanishing world comes into view.

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