New York

Curt Royston

Whitney Museum of American Art

The agenda for Curt Royston's mixed-media installation Half Light, a mélange of painted environments, real objects, photographs, simultaneous live video broadcast, was mind games: perspectival paradoxes, trompe l'oeil tricks, and ultimately reality conundrums. In the Whitney's sterile, relatively small film and video exhibition space, Royston's photographs and video images were shown side by side with the “life-size” constructions on which they were based. These funky tableaux, with their garish, van Gogh colors and confusing juxtapositions of real and painted objects, set up strange, Caligari-like distortions of skewed perspective. Broadcast live on video monitors, the tableaux were transformed into flat, two-dimensional electronic images. As the viewer's eye traveled from the “real” to the “fake,” questions about the assumed, basic truths of space and time were raised, altering the perceptual distance between the actual installation and its media-mediated version to create a playful, mental ping-pong match about perceivable reality. Royston's formalist logic worked alchemical wonders on these tableaux, turning phenomenological abstractions into experiential mysteries. When one investigated the actual installations, the techniques became obvious—superimpositions, distortions, and other technical gimmicks—but they were not used here simply for their deceptive power. Royston had something more in mind: to suspend the viewer between various levels of “reality.”

In the four photographs one saw on first entering the space, these levels were laid out like a chicken-egg problem: Was that record player in Record Player, 1985, painted as it appeared to be? Was it a photograph of a painted object, or a photograph that Royston later painted over? These questions took on a visceral aspect when the viewer stood in specific spots in front of two of the tableaux and found him- or herself included in the image on the screen, thus adding another element of confusion to the already ambiguous picture of reality perpetrated by the artist.

Royston's playfully serious methods were presented in a wonderfully condensed form in High Noon, 1987, a bipartite piece made up of a three-dimensional wall work and a same-size color photograph of that same work, joined together at right angles and hung in a corner of the room. The wall relief contained real objects—a coffee cup, a spoon, an artificial flower, and an electric light fixture—painted over with bright acrylic and mounted on plywood. Paradoxically, these all looked more “real” in the photograph than they did in the relief.

With the addition of a live performer, dancer/choreographer Lisa Fox, Half Light became the “stage set” for High Noon, a performance piece that further activated the work's perceptual game playing. Wearing a simple black dress and pumps, Fox portrayed a nameless female character who posed, gestured, and assumed quixotic attitudes within the various tableaux. Watching her “live” was like viewing the taping of a television show: one's attention was repeatedly drawn away from the actual event to its representation on the monitors. Onscreen, her performance created multiple perspectival triple takes, in which the flattened-out, video-generated “woman” interacted with her equally flattened-out environment in seemingly impossible ways; at times, she resembled a small figure electronically superimposed on backgrounds. The soundtrack accompaniment, a recording of waves breaking on a shore followed by several Chopin preludes and nocturnes, heightened the self-involved, moody dramatic atmosphere. Certain moments crystallized the aura of serious play generated by the performance, especially a segment in which Fox spoke in fractured non sequiturs while moving on and off camera, and a recorded video interlude featuring Fox and a male actor that compressed “life” into cartoonish vignettes. Although the “text” of High Noon was more than a little opaque, it succeeded in adding more tantalizing details to Half Light's remarkably intricate and provocative puzzle.

John Howell