New York

James Coleman

Artists Space Exhibitions

James Coleman, an artist who lives and works in Dublin, Ireland, is often associated with a group of conceptual artists with whom his work has only a simple connection. This group includes Michael Asher (who shared this exhibition space with Coleman), Robert Barry, Dan Graham, Daniel Buren, Dara Birnbaum, and Judith Barry, artists whose work typifies a certain strain in conceptualism wherein the viewer’s expectations are directly challenged by the complex installation of the work. On those grounds, Coleman does fit in, but his work is less attracted to issues of closure and repression than that of, say, Asher, Graham, or Barry. He combines a flair for the theater, a tradition of Irish storytelling, and a visual enthrallment with the physical object, as if to take the bull by the horns and confront the issue of making a picture.

Seeing for Oneself is an audiovisual presentation consisting of 250 slides and a narration, running 40 minutes in length, and is an elaboration of a work exhibited at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1987. Its plot tells of the goings-on in an old Irish castle where a young woman named Tamara explores the “questionable” circumstances surrounding her father’s untimely death. Seeing for Oneself opens with a color slide of the old castle, which quickly and discreetly dissolves into a more generic vintage black-and-white. The “story” contains several plot twists and an assortment of characters, yet one thing is made alarmingly clear almost immediately in the piece: the events that take place in the castle, the things characters do, the things they say, even the castle itself, are of no specific importance. They are clichés, hyperclichés really, utterly self-conscious and overstated. Coleman has written a story which makes itself redundant; once the structure is apparent, the details become extraneous. The result is that Seeing for Oneself amounts to a single picture, a mock expressionist canvas dripping with implication. Coleman ardently disavows any relationship with either film, theater, or any other storytelling program, despite the fact that his pieces often find homes within their comforts.

The piece implies a structure far less complicated than would at first appear. Coleman employs a deliberately heavy hand in embellishment, yet chooses a decidedly minimal structure. Like Frank Stella after 1968, the artist piles it all on in an attempt to get to less; to obliterate the image through excess. He invests his conceptual interest in the picture by accepting rather than negating its importance, and by repressing the urge to repress, he is successful at conquering it.

Christian Leigh