New York

Roger Welch

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Roger Welch is best known for works in which he uses photography or film to examine how images shape our perceptions of the world. Drive In, a film and sculpture installation curated by Leandro Katz, focused on the myths that surround popular film. A 18-by 6-foot model of a Rolls Royce, made of twigs and branches tied together, faced a screen—a sheet draped across two large sticks—that stood in a corner of the room. Onto this screen Welch projected a continuous stream of movie shorts: theater announcements, junk food advertisements and previews for six films from the mid-1950s. The installation included all the elements commonly associated with drive-ins. Well, almost all—Welch’s hollow automobile had no back seat. Though this omission was disappointing to some of us it was clearly deliberate. A dreamlike tableau, Drive In suggests the many ways we mythologize cultural history and personal experience.

As Welch sees it, drive-in theaters are no longer an essential part of our social life—those who choose to go in the ’80s do so primarily out of nostalgia. To emphasize this, Welch imbued his theater with the aura of a shrine. His Rolls Royce, stripped of its metallic glitter and reinterpreted as a primitive wooden form, exuded totemic presence. Standing in near darkness, this ghostly ruin was lit only by light reflected off the screen and by a spotlight which cast eerie shadows on the gallery floor. An empty hull, Welch’s “car” was given the attention of a cult object.

Welch chose to reconstruct a Phantom III Rolls, a model manufactured during the ’40s. Featured in the movie The Yellow Rolls Royce, the Phantom III became the symbol of wealth and luxury in the ’50s. The fantasies surrounding it are compounded by the fantasies advanced in the film previews shown on the screen. The preview for Shane, a movie as rustic as Welch’s sculpted automobile, brought home with full force how important a role nostalgia plays in the popular imagination of Americans.

Welch showed other trailers including The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Time Machine and Invaders from Mars, sagas of modern day pioneers who conquered time, space and biology just as Shane conquered the West. The only one that focused on “everyday life” was This Happy Feeling, a ’50s sitcom about a suburban woman (Debbie Reynolds) pursued by wealthy and attractive men, but determined “not to let sex into her life until she was ready.”

Welch’s film collage seemed like a time capsule, an abbreviated survey of ’50s hallucinations. Popular stereotypes, archetypal dramas, media idols and cultural values became cinematic cliches. Yet the hyperbole of these previews seemed no more far-fetched than the joys promised by the interspersed fast-food ads which urged viewers to take advantage of the goodies on sale at the refreshment stand. These ads were accompanied by theater announcements. The first, an animated sign on the screen, let viewers know it was time for Intermission and the succeeding ones were countdowns: warnings that only three minutes, then two minutes, then one minute remained to get refreshments before the show began. After the last film preview, a sign jubilantly declared that it was Showtime—and immediately thereafter the film loop began again, announcing the Intermission. Welch refers to this as “deferred gratification fantasy.”

Shelley Rice