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Friday, March 5, 2010

Shooting & Asking

The first show up in the Tahoe Gallery this semester, "Shoot First and Ask Questions Later," featured the video work of Julie Perini. She gave a fun, engaging talk, tracing her development as an artist, coming up through the DIY ethics of college radio and zine culture and later mapping that desire for immediacy and authenticity to the tactics of conceptual artists like Adrian Piper, when she was exposed to their work in graduate school. At one point she re-enacted Piper's Catalysis IV, in which Piper stuffed a towel in her mouth and rode on public transportation, injecting an odd and alienating behavior into the stream of the everyday (Perini, who claims to be somewhat introverted in public, said she found the experience far more difficult than anticipated).

The dominant piece in the gallery was "They've Got a Name for Girls Like Me," projected on the largest open wall. Regardless of its status in her oeuvre, it positions itself very literally as a "signature piece," consisting of snippets from dozens of films that feature a character named "Julie." Perini has edited together all the instances in which someone calls out "Julie" (and also, drolly, some instances where we see the name written down on some important plot-nudging note). All the emotional modulations of the name (breathy, commanding, romantic, remonstrative) become a one-word arpeggio. The effect is humorous and a bit diabolical -- once you've seen the piece, you're guaranteed never to forget the artist's name (or at least her first name). It brings to mind pop songs that chant a name as the chorus, in catchy OCD delirium, like "Barbara Ann" or "Jolene." It also speaks to the way we personalize mass movie experiences (if your name is "Julie," you'll see movies that have characters named Julie in a different light, hearing -- at least on a subconscious level -- all the exhortations to Julie as a sort of intimate address. But that's just an overt example of the externalized narcissism that is a fundamental part of movie-watching.)

To segue on a note of catchy pop music, "Johnny, Are You Queer?" records Perini trying to memorize the lyrics of the Josie Cotton song of the same name (in her talk, she mentioned it was filmed as a sort of act of procrastination for going to the gym). The camera is trained on Perini's face as she mouths the lyrics and replays the song, trying to set the words in her mind. It gives an anthropological distancing to a private undertaking, the kind of thing one would do in your bedroom as a teenager, acquiring a piece of pop culture like an article of clothing, adjusting the trim so you can wear it naturally.

"Watch Me Break it Down" stars Perini's feet, dancing in a variety of public spaces in and around Buffalo, NY (a library, a street corner, a skating rink, etc). Perini set up a camera at foot level and broke into a dance (most of the people in the background either fail to notice, or feign not noticing -- in her talk, she said she was originally unhappy with the piece, because she ended up using the other people as mere props -- but she's made her peace with it). And "Guy at a Coffee Shop" is a perfect example of using video as a sort of sketchpad -- not gathering staged material to a pre-planned end, but capturing a moment that seems fleeting, genuine. While sitting in a coffee shop, Perini noticed a young man who appeared to be sketching her. She had her video camera, and surreptitiously filmed him in the act. His eyes keep flicking up from the drawing pad (hidden from view), in a compulsive tic that's somehow reminiscent of a fish gulping for air. Rather than a mouth grasping bits of air, his wide-flung eyes grasp bits of sight. Subtitles appear over the footage, clarifying the audio when Perini or the guy speaks, and reconstructing Perini's thought process while observing. Drawing and filming are given an equivalency. At one point, the guy, realizing he's being filmed, assents that, drawing or videos, it's all basically the same thing. He gives her a thumbs up, and a second later a subtitle flashes on the screen: "Why did he do that?"

Lastly, her piece "Suffragette Slasher" is a reconstruction of an act of artistic and political vandalism by the suffragette Mary Richardson. In 1914, Richardson slashed Velasquez's painting "The Rokeby Venus" (hanging in the National Gallery of London) to protest the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women's Social and Political Union. Richardson released a statement after the fact:

"I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a Government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy."

In her video, Perini plays Richardson, getting dressed in preparation for the assault, and carrying it out. A news item quoted at the above Mary Richardson link has the terrific sentence "The woman, producing a meat chopper from her muff or cloak, smashed the glass of the picture, and rained blows upon the back of the Venus." That sentence, despite the reserved diction, evokes the sensationalistic sex-and-violence combo that drives the disrobe-and-hack dialectic of slasher films. Perini intercuts the preparation and attack in a stroboscopic flurry of edits, paced like a climactic horror-movie sequence. Here, when the cleaver hacks into the naked female form, it's wielded by a suffragette rather than a masked bogeyman; the sequence itself appears to chop itself up like a whirring cuisinart of emancipation and attack.

The staged and scripted qualities of "Sufragette Slasher" would seem to set it apart from the other work, but Mary Richardson is an apt surrogate. The woman, unnoticed at the margins of culture, hanging like an asterisk at the edge of a great painting, suddenly does the unexpected and occupies center stage. It may be other people's music, other people's paintings, other people's movies, other people's spaces, but Julie still gets to be the star of the show.

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