essay for the publication to accompany the exhibition
February 13 - April 25, 2010
“In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost while simultaneously recording that loss.”
The extended reach of a laughing woman grasping after a crawling baby is shot from above; set against soft white bedsheets and oriented so as to capture the restless motion of a baby, it conveys a domesticated Eden where the bond between a young mother and child is fresh and bare. Having once adorned the cover of Life Magazine in 1970, it is an impression of life as unfettered and resolutely optimistic. And yet in Elad Lassry’s photograph Joanna and Trace A1 (2007), the vintage image is repurposed, undergoing a unique form of visual redaction as background blocks of typographic red and white meant to underscore taglines and prompt consumer desire are inverted and overlaid, obscuring the headlines beneath. Leaving only the tab of the original subscriber’s address clearly legible, Lassry shifts the editorial and economic conventions at play here, orphaning this once idyllic portrait of American family life and returning it to the more anonymous world of gesture. In the process, the commercial viability of the image is both recalled and revoked. Context, source, and circulation are ghosted into background concerns and the implied motion of the image is brought forth. Similar encounters with unsettled photographic tropes characterize much of Lassry’s image redirection, as when the winsome smile of a male model’s headshot is vexed by doubly exposed eyes in Man 071 (2007), or the benign schoolgirl charm of Felicia (2008) is likewise impaired by the noise and jitter of superimposition, an adjacency often amplified by matching the frame with a prominent color in the photograph’s background, further destabilizing the figurative subject.
Placeholders meant to be readily legible lapse into a stuttered motion in Lassry’s pictures as the conventions of studio photography—portraiture, still life, fashion and product set-ups—are collaged, recast, and mimicked to uncanny effect. Unmoored from illustrative fidelity—a shift accentuated by the pull toward objecthood in their framing—Lassry’s image repertoire departs from the marketing diegesis of advertising and Hollywood that it trades upon. Perfect human faces, animal specimens, and unblemished fruit look on imploringly—no products to adhere to—just as erstwhile protagonists, often collaged from or modeled upon Lassry’s predilection for 1970s pop culture ephemera, conjure up a range of moods and expressions decoupled from plot and target audiences. In doing so, Lassry departs from now familiar appropriation tactics, adopting and modifying the clichéd, nostalgic, and artificial through impressions of staccato movement, misprint effects, and further evacuations of long instrumentalized imagery. Eschewing a critique of the iconic or representative persona, product, or conflict—as was often the case with many so-called “Pictures” generation appropriation strategies—Lassry traffics in a secondary register of lesser familiarity and circulation.(2) Not dissimilar to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ description of the bricoleur who always “references some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying, or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle,”(3) there is rather a sense of peripheral discord brought into syncopated focus in Lassry’s pictures. Building up a recursive kinship between once utilitarian prompts and the exhausted stagecraft of product and audition scenarios, Lassry evokes the loss of a certain image efficacy in our increasingly cross-referenced, sortable digital age. The oscillation that results in a grouping of Lassry’s mute yet entreating pictures extends to his films as they likewise borrow from multiple sources and embrace a process of crossing eras and abstracting cultural references.
Derived from an array of textbooks, magazines, and photography books, Lassry’s films often begin with a questioning of pictures culled from contradictory contexts. In translating the overlap and boundary conditions into moving images, Lassry insists upon the consciousness of the still frame, often returning to and repeating sequences that delay movement and withhold ready recognition or identification; setting up failed tableaux vivant and fragmented views of heightened physicality and choreography, Lassry emphasizes the time of registration over the time of narrative and direct quotation, choreographing what Annette Michelson identifies as “the instant of arrest and release, of reversal, of movement”(4) that structural filmmaking, in particular, makes possible.
Untitled (Agon) (2007), for example, takes its cues from a 1958 manual called The Art of Making Dances, published by choreographer Doris Humphrey. A pioneer of modern dance—who, like Martha Graham and Louise Brooks, got her start in the popular traveling shows of the 1920s Denishawn Dance Company—Humphrey’s instructional approach proposed a method of breaking down expressionistic dance movements by identifying weak and strong areas of the stage. By adapting Humphrey's scheme in relation to a pas de deux passage from George Balanchine’s neoclassic ballet Agon (1957), Lassry imagines an unlikely collaborative moment that never existed, displacing the austere lyricism of Balanchine’s balletic forms with a transposed schematic, and vice versa. Prototypical of Lassry’s approach, the outmoded is warped into the arena of the highly skilled or virtuosic, creating a dynamic of rupture and repetition that inflects each of his films.
Borrowing from structuralist film tactics of the 1960s—fixed camera positions, predetermined sequencing, and simplified action—Lassry delineates the limitations of the film camera’s frame within a lexicon of views proposed by Humphrey’s book, invoking his own version of what Deleuze termed the “out-of-field,” that which “refers to what is neither seen nor understood, but is nevertheless perfectly present.”(5) Specifically, in Lassry’s case, the out-of-field is that of command and prowess, a charged atmosphere of directive that is partially withheld through the absence of sound in his films. Just as his photographs extract themselves from evicted but nevertheless insinuated editorial and design connotations, Lassry’s films imply the presence of a directorial voice impelling each version and variation from off camera. For Untitled (Agon), Lassry adopts something like the répétiteur’s role in an opera or ballet company—repeating a choreographed sequence and breaking it down step by step until it becomes rote for the performers and proxy viewer. Interpolating a silenced yet procedural ethos onto a climactic moment from Ballanchine impedes the moment of catharsis even as it siphons from its aura.
Following a 1959 performance of Agon at the New York City Ballet, dance critic Edwin Denby wrote that “the emotion is that of scale”(6) as Ballanchine’s choreography worked to upend conventions and introduce a ballet that proceeded by gesture and rhythm, evading plot signatures, and taking instead “the form of a small entertainment.”(7) Employing professional dancers Megan LeCrone and Ask la Cour, Lassry accordingly recreates the last minute of Balanchine’s seminal work in a New York City Ballet rehearsal space, beginning each shot from a predetermined vantage point borrowed from the Humphrey book. As the dancers break their initial equipoise and cross before the camera, repeatedly filling the frame with fragments of studied movement, they cease to be merely performers embodying a duet and become the subjects of an elaborate study in visual contrast and embodied memory. Shot from different angles, the demands of executing a highly technical movement are heightened by partial views of the dancers’ bodies, as the frame repeatedly fragments the choreography, simultaneously deciphering and annulling the delivery. The grid-like outline of the barre, Balanchine’s trademark black-and-white costuming, and the immediate legibility of the neutral dance studio, are offset by Lassry’s capturing the dancers’ awkward bearing just prior to and after they repeat the routine’s closure—a collapse wherein the dancers fall into each other and form a figurative abstraction.
Held within the frame just long enough to include the moment when the performers step in and out of their roles, thereby releasing the choreography’s final symbolic image, Lassry here interprets scale as emotion via the moment when the individuated body steps from the rigor of the routine at the end of each variation. Similarly, the close-ups that bookend the film further reveal Lassry’s interest in an estrangement of codified gesture; trained upon each dancer’s head and shoulders, the dip, nod, and sway of transition moves across their faces as they envision the upcoming sequence, dilating their visual focus and punctuating time with the presence of memory and training. Not unlike an athlete imagining a series of maneuvers or a course that must be run, transitions stored in muscle memory flash across the mind’s eye and ripple the dancer’s body. The result is that a condensation of bodily inscription occurs before the camera. Montage appears to be inverted here and attain a fleeting yet corporeal presence in the gestures of pre-enactment that occur in these long shots. Placed alongside the transient, unnerving appeal of his photographs, Lassry’s deliberate style of filmmaking recalls French critic Raymond Bellour’s notion of “the pensive spectator” who vacillates before a film due to an awareness of the still image(s) that lie within and an awareness of the potential to pause the action and add to or interrupt the impending linearity of a given sequence.(8)
With Zebra and Woman (2007), Lassry further exacerbates the tension between still and moving images by engaging a conventional scenic device, in the form of a black backdrop, that erases depth of field and accentuates gesture and motion—a tactic used to emphasize the act of viewing that extends back to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography, but also early time-lapse films of plant and insect behavior, as well as W.K.L. Dickson’s first experiments filming traveling players, pugilists, Buffalo Bill’s revue, Sioux Ghost Dances, and other highly charged pantomimes in Edison’s Black Maria laboratory. That this neutral backdrop would also become a standard mise-en-scène for film and photo shoots—from Warhol’s screen tests to countless music videos and fashion spreads—is evoked in Lassry’s dual portrait of a bemused artifice. Comprised of slow left-to-right panning shots, the film begins with the twitch of a zebra’s tail, proceeds along the black-and-white sheen of the animal’s flank, past its muzzle and skittish glance, to jump cut and end on the profile of an attractive blond woman absorbed in holding a far-off gaze. An exercise in the most basic principle of cinematic montage—the bringing together of contrasting or seemingly out-of-sequence images as an associative stimulus to the viewer—Lassry’s use of the steady pan distorts our expectation of a beautiful woman’s pose while also fluently referencing what film historian Tom Gunning has termed an “aesthetic of astonishment,” which characterized so many spectators’ incredulous response to early moving pictures.
The illusion of an exotic tableau vivant falters almost immediately in the zebra’s quivered response to off-camera handlers, even turning to confront the camera, while the model—played by Hollywood actress Radha Mitchell—nearly manages her empty stare throughout before a slight pucker troubles her mouth as she passes slowly out of the frame. Stand-ins for a failed illustration of seemingly surrealist juxtaposition, the scenario attains instead a demonstrative tonality in keeping with early cinematic experiments. An awareness of the apparatus is amplified by the anticipation of the tracking shot along with subjects both reluctant and self-conscious, enfolding what Giorgio Agamben offers as definitive of cinema, namely a re-inscription of gesture that calls attention to its enervated status. In elaborating the paradoxical nature of cinema’s returning the viewer to the realm of gesture, Agamben clarifies that “what characterizes gesture is that there is neither production nor enactment but undertaking and supporting.”(9) For it is the sphere of the rehearsal, outtake, and mountable episode that differentiates cinema from theater, the ability to return to, parcel out, and synthesize the “anima” or vital force of a given gesture along with the knowledge that what transpires before the camera is imprinted for the material appeal of the apparatus rather than a reciprocated audience relationship. Existing forever alongside a time of whole and unitary performance—and so outside the immersion of ritual and the denouement of theater or opera—cinema both mourns and ridicules linearity, duration, and continuity. And yet, as Agamben further intimates, perhaps it is exactly the phenomenological gap opened here by cinema and filmmaking that maintains a reserve of mimetic capability long exhausted in the still image’s embedded subservience to logo, slogan, and column.(10)
A trio of recent films employs the white background of a stripped down soundstage in construing more elaborate investigations of perception, gesture, and past cultural achievements. Untitled (2008), for instance, departs from a trompe l’oeil photograph found in a 1971 science textbook intended to show how visual depth perception works. Replicating the floor diagram of a house-like structure from the photograph—painted in a Josef Albers-esque combination of light blue and yellow—Lassry engages three young women and a man to interact with the optical illusion. The depthless white backdrop acts to highlight contour rather than motion, making the figures seem like cutouts. Negotiating their positions in order to maintain the illustrative effect, the models hold poses and repeat gestures for the camera in episodic scenes that resemble a series of commercial auditions. Employing what appear to be industry professionals, Lassry accumulates empty gestures and highly staged interactions in durations that disrupt their potential as static images: a windowpane frames a man and woman mouthing melodramatic dialogue; a woman struggles to hold her pose in the illusion’s doorway, falling in and out of character with nervous laughter; while another model flashes a perfect smile over and over. Untitled (2009), continues Lassry’s use of recognizable faces as actor Eric Stoltz pantomimes a series of explanatory gestures on a soundstage populated with oversized Minimalist columns finished in gleaming green, yellow, and black. The gravity of the man’s authorial directives are ostensibly received by a boyish female dancer—always pictured separately—who attentively listens before enacting a series of spritely maneuvers, including the torso-down view of an aerial special effect that crosses back and forth before a stationary camera. Lassry’s interpretation of the exaggerated production stills of a television adaptation of Peter Pan, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins and played by Mary Martin, is collapsed with the gestalt effects of Minimalism’s primary structures here made into props. The “kinesthetic demands” on the viewer, to use Robert Morris’ oft-quoted phrase regarding Minimalist sculpture, including an “awareness of scale (that) is a function of the comparison between the constant, one’s body size, and the object,”(11) are comically transformed into a Broadway-style backdrop.
Lassry’s most recent film, Untitled (Passacaglia) (2010), returns to modern dance for inspiration as it restages sections of a Doris Humphrey composition from 1938 that was later filmed for American public television in 1966. Shot on Super-16mm—a film format with a wide aspect ratio originally designed for broadcast television and used by Lassry in three of his five films—the ensemble piece is transposed from black and white into color and challenges members of the New York City Ballet to interpret a somber yet assertive choreography considered radical for its time. By choosing a recreation in and of itself as a starting point and inviting performers with a different vocabulary and training, Lassry pushes the degree of remove and artifice to newfound lengths. The dance for camera aspect is heightened with long tracking shots, vertiginous angles, and close-up views that interrupt any continuity, refusing any overview or intimation of periodicity. Rather, the overtly expressionistic Humphrey movements get boxed in and made claustrophobic here. Offset by a methodical opening shot of a prop painting meant to mime Robert Delaunay’s La grande Portugaise (1916), the counterbalance offered by Lassry is not release, but yet another false movement. A mock-up of Delaunay’s post-Cubist departure into rhythmic and colorful abstraction is filmed according to the sleight of hand conventions of filming painting. Long panning shots over the prop’s surface move left to right, and up and down, only to be supplanted onto the opening shot of the dancers as the film enacts an allusive collapse of once experimental styles. Eliding the styles of past innovations, Lassry underscores the loss of emphatic articulation even as he rehearses its renewal.
(1) Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, Verso Press, London/New York 1993, p. 137.
(2) Lassry’s tactics of appropriation differ from such well-known examples as Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980), or Richard Prince’s re-photographing of Marlboro advertisements and Barbara Kruger’s signature use of the Futura Bold Oblique font in that Lassry largely repurposes provisional imagery.
(3) Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1966, p. 19.
(4) Annette Michelson, “From Magician to Epistemologist. Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera,” The Essential Cinema. Essays on Films in the Collection of Anthology Film Archives, ed. P. Adams Sitney, New York 1975, p. 104.
(5) Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1986, p. 17.
(6) Edwin Denby, “Three Sides of Agon,” Roger Copeland, Marshall Cohen (eds.), What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism, Oxford University Press, New York 1983, p. 453.
(7) Ibid. p. 446.
(8) Raymond Bellour, “The Pensive Spectator,” Wide Angle, Ohio, vol. 9, no. 1, 1987, p. 6–10.
(9) Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” p. 140.
(10) Ibid. p. 140.
(11) Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” Continuous Projected Altered Daily. The Writings of Robert Morris, MIT Press, Cambridge 1993, p. 13.