Sunday, February 20, 2011

Staged and Screened

Staged and Screened

James Brooks
126, Artist-run Gallery
3rd - 26th February 2011

By Oisín McGuinness

Upon entering the 'shoebox' (and I don't mean that in a bad way) of 126, one is confronted with the formal language of minimalism that is both the continental zeitgeist and the prevailing aesthetic of the gallery's current team of Board Members. The young spectacled volunteer gallerists sit around a designer desk at the entrance to the hyper hip, über clean space. The whole thing is palatably not your old Galway (in despite of the Celtic crap affixed to the building's exterior) and something far more urban than this little city has seen before. It is tidy, self-conscious and smart.
The work of artist James Brooks makes slight, formally considered gestures and appeals to the audience to unravel a complex code: A long row of 'dot' drawings, oddly timed applause from speakers above, a black on black under black glass print, a television displaying the back of a television, a white cube on the floor with text only video emanating from it and... more 'dots'.
The long left-hand-side wall is cut by a line of 24 identically framed 'drawings'. They are all on graph paper. They all consist of numerous dots. They look machined, but they are not. The dots form winged geometric shapes and remind one of Space Invaders formations. They are all with minor variations and loosely similar. I studied the first one. It is precise beyond my belief, ability and well... interest. The essential list of works reveals much, it is titled Seating plans of 24 'On' Broadway theatres and they are pen drawings of the seating plans of 24 'on' Broadway theatres. I looked at one and moved on.

Opposite this immaculately controlled line is a cluster of Seating plans of 7 'Off' Broadway theatres. Concept grasped, I didn't feel compelled to study these.

Unfortunately both these groups promise much, but really who cares about the seating arrangements of theatres? Or this selection of theatres for that matter? Maybe there should have been more? Maybe they should have been overlaid on each other for comparative purposes? Maybe they shouldn't have been draw, but sourced directly from the theatre's ticket office? Or maybe its just not a good idea. This is not an investigation into something innate about humanity or the commonality of form in problem solving, i.e. it does not look at something unplanned, something vernacular or not-designed. Oddly, this is hand made so as to obscure the origins, but in a mechanised way. These origins are from the drafting tables and computers of architects; from the offices and laboratories of sound engineers; from the desks and board rooms of managers of Broadway theatres. In other words, these are carefully, skillfully and knowingly designed spaces and seating arrangements that consider maximising ticket sales with an intimate viewing experience. And they have been painstakingly redrawn. I looked at one and moved on.
In the back of the gallery is a dark horizontal rectangle. A black frame with tinted glass. I immediately infer that the viewer must work for this one. One must pull close to the glass surface to peer through... And what we see is sheet music. Laser printed onto black paper (since black paper is really dark gray, it is slightly visible). Our list of works tells us this is Nocturne (G minor). I don't know enough about music or sheet music to know what this means. I don't know enough to discern if the music has been altered. It looks like classical. The artist has gone out of his way to obscure the music. I don't know why I'm looking at it. I move on.
I later Google it and find it is a likely reference to Frederic Chopin. Ok, he's really famous. He was very talented from a very young age and was very French/Polish. I still don't know what this piece means.
Near this is a television resting on the ground. It shows a video of a television resting on the ground (that is backwards and near enough to a wall). This video reveals the reflected light from the moving image 'splashing' against the wall. It is beautiful. It makes me think about how photography, film/video are able to isolate light in these oft-taken-for-granted simple moments, drawing attention to them, seeing them anew as they operate physically and not semiologically. This highlights how often one's mind translates what our eyes take in simply as a noun and not as the phenomenologically visual. It turns out to be a piece called Reversed Performance and the press release makes known that it is an appropriated, played backward recording of Mick Jagger performing. Frankly it doesn't matter what it is, it's lovely.

A white box sits on the floor a couple of meters away. Similar in size, it houses a projector. The piece is a short text based piece. The 'full screen' box is faintly visible and I suspect that the text at the base must be subtitles sampled and 'looped' from a film. The title The Third Man grants us access. It is an acidic diatribe pulled from this 1949 film, it is against a central character's unethical practices and, well, greed and dishonesty. The text echoes with our banking difficulties of today: “Lot of good your money will do you in jail.” It also echoes with the Broadway drawings: “Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” This is a nice synchronicity, but it doesn't quite add up. Are we really supposed to feel empathy with the patrons of Broadway theatre? And what of the other works, how do they fit in the current economic melt down?

It is for a reason I cannot pinpoint, the piece felt like it is the least well presented in the show; it lacks the precision the rest of the works have. Did this need to be a projection? Did it need to be on the floor? Should it have been in a darkened space? Would the soundtrack have sufficed or added to it?
A sound piece emanates from above. Canned laughter goes off periodically. Called Absent Friends, it is from a single episode of the popular television series. All other noise is erased out. I feel like I've witnessed this before. I recall Venerations (Applause), a piece by the two person team of caraballo-farman, in which they compiled clips of live studio audiences applauding with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Brooks' work is the inverse in many ways, being the study of a nonexistent audience's scripted aural response to a well known programme. It is effective and fun, but risks being a one-liner.

Perhaps that is the downfall of his carefully constructed investigation. The pieces are a bit formulaic. A bit of the A + B = artwork approach to art production. Without being too rigorous in concept, too passionate in subject and too adaptive in approach, Brooks' show comes off as 'so cool its cold'. It is so clever that it comes off as trying to look smarter than it is. Ultimately this viewer felt the show was crisp, clean and yes... pretty good, but not generous, invigorating or rewarding.
Images courtesy of 126 and the artist.


  1. Hip? We aint hip, we is mucksavages!

  2. While I wouldn't agree with a number of the points made here, it is refreshing to see review with an actual opinion on the work as opposed to the many which are filled with bland complimentary waffle.

  3. With ten rhetorical questions this review lacks serious credibility, authenticity and insight. I read it, I studied it, it is beyond my belief, and interest, I read it again and moved on. Old Galway raises its ugly head. I dont feel compelled or enlightented by this piece of amateur writing.

  4. I don't think those are rhetorical questions, I don't see why you equate questions with a lack of authenticity and you did feel compelled enough to read it twice and imitate the review's style sarcastically!

  5. What a strange review... The writer shamelessly reveals that they have no empathy, patience or sensitivity with any art work unless it's moving !
    A mind fuelled by high entertainment Action movies ? by the sound of it...

    Yet they then write, thus expect the reader to digest a long winded, opinionated review of what are quick knee jerk reactions. I saw this show and the press release revealed a whole lot more than the reviewer unfortunately took in.
    I thought this was serious, broad minded blog ?

  6. It is our mission to promote reviews and opinions that are not overly sympathetic to the artist or anyone else. That is, we actively promote candor and earnestness. Being a serious, broad-minded blog means that at times opinions will be expressed by writers that not everyone agrees with.

    We welcome submissions that work with this ethos.

  7. I will also add that it is my personal opinion that such reviews as Oisín's are an important contribution to the dialogue around visual art in Ireland primarily because of their political and social ramifications, i.e. that they challenge the primacy of the artists' subjectivity and ask us all to consider 'which public?' a work or exhibition is for.

  8. Why is there required reading for art shows?

  9. The snarky tone is a bit ott, but think the relevance of criticising elitist-seeming art is clear.

  10. Everybody's taste is different I suppose, but I'd just like to add that I loved this particular show!