New York

Sharon Greytak

Collective For Living Cinema

Sharon Greytak’s Czechoslovakian Woman (1982) consists of eight filmed black and white photographs, which document a woman’s funeral in Czechoslovakia in the ’60s. Staggered pans and zooms are executed over the photographs while subtitles present a text in phonetic English. Some Pleasure on the Level of the Source (1982) follows a little girl as she jumps rope, colors a rectangle red, has her eyes covered, sits with her hands in her lap and pushes her hair back sultrily. In The Living Room (1983) we watch two women tell anecdotes about joining the marines and making magnesium bombs. This segues into an aerial view of factories, followed by a shot of the arms and hands of a man and woman daintily clutching glass goblets and toasting one another. Then we see a series of cropped close-ups of an advertisement for Waterford crystal: “The triumph of man’s quest to conquer light.”

Rather than relying upon the cinema’s ample envelope of narrative speech and imagery, Greytak’s films utilize pictures and words in a haltingly additive fashion. In the name of “focusing to perception an occurrence or incident that would normally go unseen,” she displays the incremental accumulations that make up meaning. But in doing so, she does not foreground the material, celluloidal state of film itself, nor engage in protracted repetitions or meditations on color. Greytak is not particularly interested in formalist estheticizing or the enchantments of abstract painting. Rather, she considers the varietal readings of the still photograph and the dispensations of the framing procedure. Her films can be about how photographs and words allow or withhold their significance. And in an interesting inversion, her stationary camera minimizes the movement of live action, while its movement activates the surface of the “still” photograph. Aside from tenuous connections to the films of Gail Vachon, Dan Eisenberg, and Sharon Couzin, Greytak seems to engage a kind of hybrid picturing which links a loosely adapted version of various film theories with the still photography of John Baldessari and Richard Prince.

The program notes (written by Greytak) that accompany these films are not cursory seven-sentence blurbs, but step-by-step descriptions of what these works show and tell us. The importance given the prefaces is apt, as these are indeed “textual” films. That is, they illustrate on both a literal and literary level certain theoretical texts concerning “the look,” “the code,” “filmic activity and the narrator/spectator relationship,” etc. The films function as a kind of “Cliff’s Notes of Theory,” dryly declining any frivolous involvement in some frenzied, hyperbolic, creative quest. But just as the demands of the inspired moment dictate the choreography of “creative” expression, so another demanding precedent, that of critical film theory, delineates the agenda of the films. In fact, it seems to make them jump through hoops.

Nevertheless, the textbook criticality which marks these works can still be read as a welcome, if not pleasurable sign. Rather than contributing to the multiplying horde of creative expression-isms (the legacy of art-school education and a response to the market economy), Greytak is beginning to scrutinize the “shown” image—to consider how what we see determines how we are seen.

Barbara Kruger