Critics’ Picks

View of “Uh-Oh It’s Magic,” 2011.

View of “Uh-Oh It’s Magic,” 2011.

Chicago

Ben Russell

threewalls
119 North Peoria Street #2C
March 11–April 23, 2011

Ben Russell’s long-standing interests in cinema and animism have yielded an eclectic range of works incorporating performance, experimental ethnography, psychedelia, and, most salient, the histories of film and its apparatuses. Titled “Uh-Oh It’s Magic,” after the bouncy refrain of a 1980s Cars song, Russell’s latest exhibition attempts to dissolve the white cube’s clinical framework, albeit in slyly allusive fashion. The floors and walls of one gallery are painted the lurid shade of green-screen compositing, evoking the process that allows filmmakers to “magically” replace one background with another. Lining these walls is the series “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation: Hanoi,” 2011, which comprises blue-framed photographs of martial artists whose spectacular aerial feats recall kung fu movies as well as the more extreme acrobatics of the genre’s suspension-rigged “wire fu” offshoots.

The large white mats surrounding these diminutive black-and-white photographs abstract each image even further while also making explicit the series’s relation to the floating divers in Aaron Siskind’s 1953–61 series “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation.” Russell “remakes” Siskind’s images a second time in the form of the 16-mm looped film Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation: Knossos/Drekkingarhylur, 2011, which contrasts two alternate visions of sublime flight: A shot of the artist attempting to rise from the site where Daedalus and Icarus are said to have launched their journeys is followed by a rainbow-drenched view of a waterfall near the infamous “drowning pool” of Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park, where hundreds of women accused of witchcraft were thrown to their deaths.

Throughout the exhibition, Yves Klein and his exquisitely duplicitous Leap into the Void, 1960, hover like guiding spirits. Even after its revelation as a photographic hoax, Klein’s jump remains a powerful testament to the euphoric potential of willful credulity. So too does Russell conjure moments of similarly ebullient possibility—if we, in turn, agree to suspend our own disbelief.