Critics’ Picks

Jenny Perlin, Untitled, vowels, 2012, watercolor on paper, 16 3/4 x 13".

New York

“The Silent Way”

Simon Preston
301 Broome Street
January 12 - February 23

The strongest artwork in this three-artist exhibition on pedagogy, perception, and the deceptions of each comes from Jenny Perlin, a New York–based filmmaker with a gift for examining collective questions without recourse to documentary. In her 16-mm silent film A Thousand Sentences, 2012, the image frame is bisected by handpainted fields of watercolor; in a succession of monochromatic washes, gray gives way to yellow and dark blue to sky blue. Each color corresponds to an English-language phoneme, either a vowel or a consonant, in a system devised by the Egyptian-born pedagogue Caleb Gattegno. A forgotten pioneer of language instruction, Gattegno averred that teaching should be subordinated to learning and that the instructor should let the student take charge; he titled this method the Silent Way, after which this exhibition is named. Perlin’s film soon cuts to sentences from Gattegno’s courses, which are more mystical and utopian than the usual hello-my-name-is Berlitz claptrap: “The conquest of deserts, the depollution of the whole planet, the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy, and applied sciences are in the process of transforming one’s vision of oneself and the world.”

Perlin’s film, privileging experience and intuition over rote learning, finds an analog in the 1954 film Form Phases IV—also on view—by the late Robert Breer, a forerunner of animation. The stop-motion silent, whose shapes are borrowed from his earlier paintings, exhibits a debt to Russian Constructivism and also to Dada. But when displayed alongside Perlin’s film, Breer’s takes on a more philosophical character. It feels less like a formal experiment and more like an object lesson in the temporal nature of perception, the uncertainty inherent in looking, and the impossibility of fixing observation or meaning beyond individual experience.

The third artist here, Matthew Buckingham, has installed a blackboard in the front gallery that states the amount of time, down to the second, that the daylight illuminating the work has traveled from the sun. It lacks the complex joy of the other art here, but one can forgive that: In a world where language and meaning have long been divorced, even the simplest statement can be mind-boggling.