Bruce Nauman revisits Contrapposto at Phildelphia Museum of Art

Video still from Bruce Nauman’s “contrapposto studies, i through vii,” 2016. Credit Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Sperone Westwater, New York

In 1968 American artist Bruce Nauman created an important early video work, Walk with Contrapposto, in which he walked down a corridor while jutting his hip out step by step, in an exaggerated and animated demonstration of the classical Greek sculptural pose contrapposto. In the past two years, Nauman returned to this subject matter in a series of seven works now featured in the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum also exhibits the original 1968 video work, and the contrast between the earlier and later works is stark.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Study in Contrapposto, 1968

The original experiment in contrapposto is shown on a TV screen in the center of a small, darkened room. On the tiny screen, a fuzzy black-and-white image of a youthful, lithe body is seen awkwardly and methodically pacing down a tall, narrow white corridor, one hip jut at a time. The viewer observes the figure’s back as Nauman walks to the end of the corridor away from the viewer as well as from the front as he walks toward the viewer. The spectacle is simple and slow, making sculptural conventions ridiculous and exploring how video could be used by an artist to implicate the audience in uneasy relation. The viewer is not confronted as directly as in some works Nauman would make in the following immediate years, such as Live-taped Video Corridor of 1970, but the voyeurship of watching the artist and his body presented in new terms the relationship between the viewer and traditional sculpture. Using the then-new medium of video makes the relationship more circumspect than that of, say, performance. That is especially true today, when such grainy small footage reminds the contemporary viewer more of security cameras than televisions. Overall, the impression is stilted and highly focused. Tension comes from the way the body fills the narrow corridor, which directs him along the only possible path he could walk on. The performance is durational; if you watch carefully, he tires over the course of the hour–the length of video cassette tape at that time. The only sound is that of his footsteps in the otherwise empty space.

In his recent works, Nauman again walks back and forth methodically jutting out an opposing hip, step by step. In both the early and later works, the same person walks in the same way in the same nondescript outfit of white t-shirt and jeans. If his earlier body resembled that of the classical Greek sculpture, his aged body is by comparison less nimble and heavier. But the more arresting difference is the technology used: Nauman has updated to large color digital projections that he manipulates. The simple moving image of 1968 becomes compounded into several similar but competing images in the same field, projecting across from competing images, sliced through horizontally more and more while the sound of footfalls is layered to build into a cacophony. In some of the works, Nauman shows the image in color and its negative. The overall effect is a blurring of action and sounds, complicating the action of a single body in motion as if someone had made video collages from a Muybridge strip of a man walking.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Certainly, the works reflect the technology of their times. One could argue that these new studies as merely translating the original 1968 video into new technologies. However, the meaning of the work itself also splinters under such digital manipulation. Where before the viewer had to wait to watch Nauman pace first down the corridor, and then back, here he approaches the viewer simultaneously, rendering his movements in positive and negative, forward and backward, within a single field of vision. The relationship of the viewer to the artist is easier, somehow, because your vision is free to roam over the many iterations of Nauman’s figure rather than limited to an unending tunnel. The viewer is now immersed in the large-than-life projections, implicated in the scene by the presence of some stools scattered throughout the gallery. The change in setting from the corridor to wide room loosens the sense of constriction; in the newer work, there is a sense of freedom and play. Where the young body became tired, the aged body seems in perpetual motion of recombination. What you gain is a kind of humanity alongside the deadpan, unblinking honesty that characterizes much of Nauman’s work.

Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 16, 2017.

Radcliffe Bailey’s Ships and Sea

In the Garden, 2008

Atlanta has this interesting past that makes you want to dig deeper and understand what was once there, even though it may be covered…Sherman burnt down the city. They say when you want to get rid of something, you burn it, but you don’t really get rid of it. I can look out my back door and see a lot — Radcliffe Bailey via NY Times

Radcliffe Bailey’s work Seven Steps, above, was on view at the Georgia Museum of Art when I went recently, and I love the layered colors and use of materials offset by the sepia photograph. It was recently part of an exhibition at the High Museum in Atalanta that I just missed, Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine, showcasing the Atlanta-based artist’s work on its biggest level yet. Bailey uses a variety of materials to explore history both personal and collective, and he engages memory as a device to encourage healing through art.

Tricky, 2008

Bailey is maybe better know for a layering of imagery, culturally resonant materials, and text that began when he was given some old family photographs to work with. But looking at the images from the exhibition, I was really drawn to some of his more sculptural pieces, like Tricky, above. A textured black surface juxtaposed with the jaunty tilt of the hat encase a slave ship. In The Antelope, he again presents a black ship, this time encased in glass like a fossil and sailing over white cloth/paper. 

The Antelope, 2010

The large installation Windward Coast creates a rolling ocean of piano keys harvested from some 400 pianos, suggesting the oceans traversed in the slave trade and in their midst a lone black head, the same glittery texture as the ship in Tricky, appears.

Detail view of Windward Coast

The artist does not consider his work to be solely dark or only about slavery however (as you might not realize by the pieces I’m showing here). Regarding Windward Coast, he told the New York Times, “I think about all the music that was probably played on those keys. An ocean is something that divides people. Music is something that connects people. Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk — it’s a different sound that takes you somewhere else. It’s also about being at peace.”

Installation View, Memory as Medicine at the High Museum

More about the exhibition here and images of the artist’s work here.

Regional Favorites from the Georgia Museum of Art

Horizons, Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir

My hometown, Athens, Georgia, doesn’t always change much, but when I visited recently the Georgia Museum of Art was showing off its new renovation, which featured an extensive addition to show more of the permanent collection.  It’s a beautiful renovation in general and it was fantastic to see the new galleries showing so much of the permanent collection. 

There is also a new sculpture garden, currently filled with bronze sculptures by Icelandic artist Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir (don’t ask me how to pronounce that.) However, one of the noticeable features of the permanent collections was a regional focus in the works. It felt like home–and it also felt refreshingly different from so much of the work I see here in New York.

Some of my favorites:

Tallulah Falls, 1841, George Cooke

My Forebearers Were Pioneers, 1939, Philip Evergood

The White House, 1945, Georges Schreiber

Seven Steps, 1994, Radcliffe Bailey

Detail, Seven Steps

Georgia II, 2008, Leo Twiggs