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film

Paul Sharits

Paul Sharits, Frozen Film Frame (detail), ca. 1966–77, 16-mm color film strips, Plexiglas, 39 3/8 × 52 3/4".

I DIDN'T EXPECT CHOPIN at the start of a Paul Sharits exhibition. Nineteenth-century Polish Romanticism was simply not what I had associated with the work of the American artist, best known for the jarring yet hypnotic 16-mm films of flickering color from the 1960s, such as Ray Gun Virus (1966), T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), and N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968). It soon became evident, however, that Sharits’s work on paper Transcription, 1975/1990, a humble, hand-colored screen print of the first page of Chopin’s Étude in C major, op. 10, which hangs alone in the center of a large white wall installed in the exhibition’s spacious first room, aptly introduces this focused and fascinating survey at the Fridericianum in Kassel.

Paul Sharits: A Retrospective,” organized by Susanne Pfeffer, brings together a range of films, paintings, installations, and works on paper and Plexiglas that span Sharits’s career, from his well-known Word Movie (Fluxfilm 29) (1966) to his lesser-known, and slightly grotesque, acrylic paintings on Mylar, such as Infected Hand I & III and Foot Infection III, all 1982. The exhibition also includes numerous examples of his Frozen Film Frames, 1966–77, equal lengths of 16-mm color film strips vertically arranged in adjacent rows and pressed between Plexiglas plates. The majority of the works on paper are gorgeous, intricate multicolored studies and scores for film projects. The most spectacular works in the show, however, are undoubtedly the four film installations, or “locational film pieces,” as Sharits preferred to call them—Shutter Interface, 1975; Dream Displacement, 1975–76; Epileptic Seizure Comparison, 1976; and 3rd Degree, 1982—that punctuate this savvily curated thematic presentation focused on the artist’s concerns with the aesthetic, technological, and perceptual aspects of cinema.

Sharits is rightly celebrated as one of the seminal figures in American avant-garde film. Famously linked by P. Adams Sitney to Tony Conrad, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, and other cinematic innovators of the late 1960s and early ’70s as a structural filmmaker interested in the material and technological basis of cinema and in the shape of the cinematic experience, Sharits dedicated much of his life to an aesthetic and theoretical investigation of such seemingly parochial subjects as the film frame, the sprocket hole, image grain, the film strip, and the mechanics of the projector. This materialist orientation contrasted sharply with dominant cinematic emphases on the storytelling aspects of the medium, be they illusionist or documentary-realist. Sharits makes this clear in a statement prepared for the Fourth International Experimental Film Festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, in 1967, the text of which is included in the small brochure accompanying the retrospective in Kassel:

I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the higher drama of: celluloid, two-dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen, optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness.

The “higher drama” of structural film obviously included film viewing as well as filmmaking; indeed, many of Sharits’s texts concern themselves with the spectatorial effects and aesthetic experiences of his cinematic investigations. Throughout the ’60s, he focused mainly on the perceptual and physiological effects of the flickering frame of color in a standard single-screen film projection. Toward the end of the decade, his concentration shifted primarily to multiscreen and multiprojector film installations. Although these locational pieces, beginning with Sound Strip/Film Strip, 1971–72, and continuing for ten years to 3rd Degree, further thematize the ontology of cinema (for example, by exploring the directionality of the projected film strip or the illusion of motion as facilitated by the projector’s shutter), they do so not necessarily for avant-garde film audiences but for gallery and museum visitors. Sharits viewed this “relocation of cinema” (to invoke film scholar Francesco Casetti’s concept) as both a means of attracting a nonspecialist audience to his work and an opportunity for fostering a spectatorial experience beyond the disciplinary regime of the viewing conditions in a cinema.

“Structural film is certainly about film, but it also demands to be heard,” notes Juan A. Suárez in his 2008 essay “Structural Film: Noise,” an important reconsideration of the significance of sound, music, and noise to the innovations of the structuralists. Paralleling his visual strategies, Sharits’s sound tracks experiment with aural loops, repetition, and mechanical and electronic noise. Inspired by the repetitive rhythms of speech patterns and natural sounds, Sharits aimed with his audio-visual works at constructing “operational analogues . . . between ways of seeing and ways of hearing.” This is perhaps most evident in Word Movie, in which a flowing line of quickly changing words forms a horizontal block of flickering black letters in the center of the variously colored images, accompanied by the voices of a man and a woman each reading a different text and alternating after every word. The single-frame technique of the visuals functions analogously to the single-word technique, if you will, on the sound track so as to inhibit semantic comprehension and foster instead an aesthetic experience of linguistic negativity. In Kassel, the ingenious projections of Word Movie and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G each onto a wall positioned front and center in their respective exhibition rooms cast Sharits’s experiments with sound as resonant accompaniments to one’s experience of the select drawings and paintings adorning the other walls.

The musical basis for much of Sharits’s work is certainly one theme that emerges over the course of the exhibition. That, at least, is how I came to understand the logic of the colored Chopin score at the show’s outset. Transcription is one of a handful of paintings of Chopin scores that Sharits made between the ’70s and early ’90s, attesting to a fascination with both musical notation and analogues between colors and musical chords. Some of Transcription’s colors are picked up in the other paintings in the first room, such as Replica Study I, 1975, a watercolor of a few color frames from a seemingly damaged strip of 16-mm film, and the four beautiful pink-and-black renderings of entwined projector shutters from Hypothetical Shutter Interface Series B, 1976. The introductory score, however, functions less as a chromatic link to these other works, which more explicitly thematize Sharits’s interests in cinema, than as a harbinger for the many notational drawings that follow in the show’s subsequent galleries.

Beginning in the mid-’60s, Sharits meticulously conceived his film projects by drawing scores that would sometimes occupy him for almost a year. These multicolored modular drawings chart out chromatic progression and variation in a grid of short dashes, longer lines, or fully colored and dotted squares, with each square representing one frame of 16-mm film footage. The individual drawings with their geometric patterns of colored marks, such as Frame Study 10: pink modularity B, 1974, or Study for Frozen Film Frame of Frame Study 22, 1976, are captivating, abstract pointillist artworks in and of themselves. When juxtaposed, as works from these two series are in Kassel, they provide great insight into Sharits’s twofold analysis of the directional dynamics of color progression over time. The frame studies, which map the structure of a few minutes of film footage, are intended to be read like pages in a book, horizontally, from left to right. The studies for the Frozen Film Frames, on the other hand, should be read vertically, from the top left downward, as if one were looking at actual, equal-length strips of film vertically arranged in rows, as in the eight panels of Frozen Film Frames that are on display over two floors in the meditative atmosphere of the Fridericianum’s rotunda.

Dream Displacement, the first locational piece on view, cogently introduces the artist’s fascination with the projected film strip as “a straight line in our actual overall isotropic timefield.” The four projectors in this installation are directed, strangely, not toward the projected image but parallel to it, as if in collective defiance or disavowal of the task of projection. Due to a double mirror setup on the projector stands, the individual images are thrown side by side onto a wall, creating the illusion of a continuous horizontal line of a single film strip of shifting colors and bustling white sprocket holes. The rhythmic projector sounds mix with the disjunctive quadrophonic sound of broken glasses that stings the air mysteriously as the color frames shuffle back and forth endlessly across the wall.

If the locational pieces with four projectors—Dream Displacement and Shutter Interface, a gorgeous, trance-inducing work of expansive flickering color and pulsing sound that is installed luxuriously on the second floor—provide a cohesive, enveloping aesthetic experience, the setup of three projectors and speakers in 3rd Degree fosters instead a sense of dissolution or implosion. Each positioned slightly farther from the wall than the one before it, the projectors are again parallel to the site of projection and equipped with mirrors that reflect horizontal images of a spinning strip of 16-mm film. The three looped images abut one another, yet their alternating rhythms and differing scales inhibit their unification into a single horizontal line. The additive rows of visible sprocket holes are a clue that the smallest of these barely identifiable images has twice been rephotographed. When this image slows down, a woman’s face and a lit match come slowly into focus. In this split second—when the image gets the third degree, so to speak—the celluloid bubbles up into a burning goo before the spinning slowly resumes. From speakers spaced across the room, one barely makes out an occasional woman’s voice stating, “I won’t talk.”

Melding and melting the film strip and the (female) body, 3rd Degree provides the retrospective a convenient transition from the materiality of film to the materiality of the body and from the formal to the figurative. An adjoining, penultimate room, scored to T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G’s repetitive declamations of “destroy,” displays Sharits’s late paintings of contorted, infected, and diseased body parts. This ambitious exhibition then reaches its exhilarating, if claustrophobic, conclusion within the reflective walls of the trapezoidal construction for Sharits’s double projection of flickering color and convulsive bodies, Epileptic Seizure Comparison.

Paul Sharits: A Retrospective” is currently on view (through Feb. 22) at the Fridericianum in Kassel.

Marc Siegel is an assistant professor in the department of theater, film, and media studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt.