At Sperone Westwater (Bowery), through Oct. 29, 2016:
“Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, i through vii”
It helps to know that you’re seeing the recent work of a video art pioneer half a century ago. Then you will trust in your immediate perception of dexterity with the medium in the shifting juxtapositions of unadorned, cropped images that characterize the featured, wall-scale projections.
Cognoscenti will come fully aware of Nauman’s widespread reputation as stark yet low-key Conceptual Art guru to several subsequent generations of artists to emerge out of the greater L.A. area. Specialties: performances, alternatively, for the camera and recorded as documentation, that centralize the artist-body (as here) and word play–implied or directly, alternatively or mashed together–epitomized by the neon art signs for which he is best known. Most compelling throughout his oeuvre is a unique dialectic tension between subversive, cultural erudition and dumb-deadpan humor–while his sense of form generally aligns with a Minimalist approach, i.e., serial, barely deviated repetitions, across still and moving, photographic and sculptural production.
So contrapposto is an over-determined sign–semiotically speaking–of the origins of western visual aesthetics–namely, anatomical mimesis idealized. It’s a straight-ish line from 5th-c. (b.c.) Greece to late Rodin (at least)–with multitudes of related, even dogmatic, 2D production vis-a-vis the primacy of figuration, in between. Suffice it to say, this counter-poise pose has been fetishized as the birth of naturalism in figurative representation; and as such, a progressive step towards the self-conscious, gravitational human subject, as opposed to its otherworldly, stiff-kneed (votive) predecessors. Nauman nudges it into movement through a series of essais, which gradually entice viewers to consider whether the ensuing visual rhythms are intuitive, algorithmic, or a potlatch combination reining in all sorts of other methodological possibilities as well as myriad associations.
These video “weavings” (note the one photo-stripped study included) have been generated by slicing and dicing sections of the bent/straight arm/leg pairing that define contrapposto, eking forward and back, flipped, reoriented, playing on negatives and positives–then montaged to evoke and juggle morphing, moon-walking, humpty-dumpties. It only takes a few minutes to be mesmerized–and discreet pieces become more complex–i.e., pattern-like and pulsating, as one ascends the gallery’s ethereal floors.
I venture the series also encompasses a monumental wink at Duchamp’s mechanized send-up of the Classical subject in Nude Descending a Staircase (c. 1912); as, the Dada trickster has been a beacon for Nauman from early on (beginning with his now iconic performance/image series, Self Portrait as a Fountain, c. late 1960s, an homage to Duchamp’s infamous urinal-fountain, c. 1917).
Maybe it’s only four video takes–maybe it’s forty–with which Nauman has created and arranged these seemingly widely variegated non-narrative vignettes. Maybe it’s partly a meditation on the hyped weight of art history–or a paean to its wellspring–probably both. One thing for sure, he’s not just going through the motions–although it’s him going through the motions.