Art review: Film works by Kathryn Cornelius, Janet Biggs & Mary Coble

STILL LIFE: Kathryn Cornelius's "Heather" grapples with a friend's suicide via apples on a kitchen counter.
STILL LIFE: Kathryn Cornelius's "Heather" grapples with a friend's suicide via apples on a kitchen counter. (Courtesy Of Kathryn Cornelius And Curator's Office)
By Jessica Dawson
Friday, May 21, 2010

I was watching Andy Warhol's 1964 film "Empire" the other day -- the one where Warhol trained his camera on the Empire State Building for hours and hours on end, shooting it from a single, unwavering angle. All I could think was, Genius.

In what must be the world's most excruciating establishing shot, Warhol subverted all of film's conventions and pleasures. "Empire" may be deathly boring, but it's a brilliant redefinition of the medium.

I was reminded of Warhol's stone-still moving images last weekend when I looked at Kathryn Cornelius's latest videos at Curator's Office. Of the seven new works on view, five are pitch-perfect -- which is a fantastically high percentage for a medium that's tricky to get right.

What works for Cornelius differs from one video to the next. A melancholic trio from a series called "Or, Death Speaks for Us" calls "Empire" to mind. Here, the similarities are both formal (near motionless camerawork) and spiritual (Cornelius's zest for experimentation). Another pair of videos aping movie trailers and gently spoofing the sky-high production values of some artists' films are sweet and subversive at the same time.

For the "Or, Death Speaks for Us" videos, Cornelius imagined the final moments in the lives of three acquaintances who committed suicide. The pieces run about three minutes each. For "Heather," Cornelius's camera settles on a pair of shiny green apples on a kitchen counter; for "Derek," she focuses on a crumpled white sock on a wooden floor; for "Sara," she homes in on a bathroom faucet. Though there's a shimmy left and right and up and down in "Heather" and a steady hover over the faucet in "Sara," for the most part Cornelius uses stationary shots on these places where she imagines each person died.

These still-life arrangements converse nicely with art history and the traditional conventions of the vanitas, those Dutch and Spanish still-life paintings evoking the brevity of life. Cornelius's recorded still-lifes operate in the vein of contemporary video artists such as Ori Gersht (remember "Pomegranate" in the Hirshhorn's Black Box last spring?) or Bill Viola.

But there's action in these pieces, too -- it's just not what we'd expect. Instead of actors moving across our screen, words do. We read the script of these people's final minutes, unfolding as if typed in real time.

"Heather" opens with "INT. KITCHEN -- LATE MORNING." Then, "HEATHER struggles with a tabby brown cat" and so on. Cornelius follows all the conventions of scriptwriting, including her own imagined camera angles and dialogue. Strange as this may seem, the detachment of the script's omniscient voice creates a real intimacy. There's something poignant and compelling about these works.

Cornelius's other standouts at Curator's Office are a pair of trailers for her faux film, "Home Again, Home Again." One is a "comedy," the other a "tragedy." Each can't exist without the other, and they're screened back-to-back in the gallery.

Both trailers star Cornelius and her family, who deliver their dialogue in bored, flat-footed tones. They recite a pastiche of famous lines from well-known films: Travis Bickle's "You talkin' to me?"; Bill and Ted's "Excellent!"; Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear . . .," etc.

It'll take several viewings to work through the differences between comedy and tragedy, but you'll soon notice dialogue rearrangements and background music shifts (swelling orchestrations signal tragedy; R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People," comedy). Cornelius's videos reveal the manipulations we willingly submit to when we go to the movies.

And then there's Cornelius's format: the film trailer. Signpost of multimillion-dollar budgets and high production values, the trailer signals big business -- for gallery artists as much as movie houses. Perhaps the pieces embody a wish: Cornelius is an up-and-coming artist, after all. They're also probably jabs at the productions of more lavishly funded artists.

Speaking of lavish! In the happiest of programming coincidences, Conner Contemporary Art just opened two concurrent solo shows that make a perfect foil for Cornelius's efforts.

New York City-based artist Janet Biggs produces grand, filmic videos, the kind with extended credit rolls (she thanks Parisian fashion house Hermes, among many other people and entities). The gallery's main room is given over to her 12 1/2-minute "Fade to White," projected on a movie theater-size screen.

In "Fade to White," Biggs followed an Arctic explorer as he kayaked and sailed his way through the frigid landscape. Biggs says her intent was to explode the myth of the "colonial polar hero" who travels solo (Biggs is along for the ride, after all). Every now and again, the camera cuts to a white room where an aging, androgynous singer belts out an elegiac tune; in other segments, a swelling cello dominates.

Perhaps I spent too much time looking at Cornelius's work the day before? Biggs's images may be exquisite, but her video's histrionics left me cold. She lost me when the singer's eyes fluttered and his hands began a long caress of his thighs. It was just too too.

Also on view at Conner, three much-lower-budget videos by Mary Coble, plus the remnants of a performance she did on May 15. Coble's past works engaged sexuality and gender; this group is about water (as a purifier and as a source of contaminants). Her performance -- hours spent lifting jugs filled with D.C. tap water and pouring it into an industrial-size filtration device -- generated intriguing conversations among onlookers that Saturday afternoon I was there. But Coble's videos offer neither intriguing imagery nor a coherent sense of purpose (she says they're about futility and uncertainty, but . . . ) Coble is capable of more incisive work.

Kathryn Cornelius

Curator's Office, 1515 14th St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-387-1008, to June 26.

Janet Biggs and Mary Coble

Conner Contemporary Art, 1358 Florida Ave. NE, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-588-8750, to July 3.

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