New York

Stuart Sherman

The progenitors of the new psychodrama (a cooler, more behavioral mode than that of the ’40s and ’50s) are Yvonne Rainer and Vito Acconci, but there are other performance artists who have taken to acting out their fantasies before the camera. STUART SHERMAN has been making short silent films to accompany his “spectacles” for the last three years. Seldom longer than three or four minutes each, Sherman’s movies resemble his one-man shows in their suggestive, rebuslike juxtaposition of gestures and props. There’s the same deadpan whimsy, but a greater degree of imagistic freedom. In Flying, the camera follows the trajectory of an airplane takeoff, then tracks back to Sherman holding a valise handle against the observatory railing. Roller Coaster/Reading makes a more elaborate joke on the paradox of apparent motion, by crosscutting shots of Sherman reading a book on a static roller coaster with a series of sweeping camera movements across several bookcases.

All psychodrama ultimately derives from Maya Deren, but Sherman is Der-en’s heir in even more specific ways. His films make especially clever use of the montage “creative geography” that she pioneered in At Land—although Sherman does so not in the service of creating a dreamlike space so much as a means of supplying visual jolts and formal analogies. In Scotty and Stuart, a woman drinking a glass of water is intercut with Sherman running toward the end of a pier. The sequence ends with him rising clothed from a full bathtub in a bathroom in which the woman is standing. Like Deren, Sherman is an ingenious editor. In Hand/Water he match-cuts his hand waving good-bye from the deck of a ship, to a glove floating in a glass bowl. Theater Piece is a particularly resonant exercise in match-cutting: his back always to the camera, Sherman occupies the same space on screen while his environment shifts from an empty auditorium to an empty stage to the exterior of a theater.

Sherman is particularly fond of comic synecdoches and miniaturizing effects, and he has a habit of overloading his films with one too many embellishments. But the best of his visual puns have a Magritte-like poetic kick, as in the image of carefully broken glass laid out on the roof of a downtown loft building like fallen pieces of the sky. In keeping with the dimestore nature of his theater, Sherman is most adept at recognizing the inchoate potential of the most banal material. Elevator/Dance is an extended gag based on the porthole style elevator doors of many prewar apartment buildings. Seamless loops give us the same expressionless faces passing the porthole over and over in the same direction. Occasionally Sherman inserts a shot of a massive jukebox, underscoring this silent choreography with a subliminal infusion of lyrical weirdness.

J. Hoberman