Stuart Sherman

University Art Museum

A selection of performances by Stuart Sherman, including a sequence of shorter vignettes collectively entitled “The Fourteenth Spectacle” was presented in conjunction with a series of the artist’s videos and films. Sherman uses the term “spectacle” ironically to describe the modest performances he has been staging for fifteen years. Far from being glittery or grandiose, these tableaux are played out with familiar objects on a common TV-tray table. Breaks between segments are marked by the artist hurriedly shuffling his miniature sets off his portable stage and into a battered black valise, from which he pulls objects for the next segment. Sherman calls these stagings “manipulations,” pointing to a distinction between his films and performances. Here the hand of the artist that remains invisible in the films literally takes center stage. The artist’s calculated gestures animate the insubstantial objects and rivet the viewer to the action.

In a segment of the series entitled To Eat an Apple, Sherman carries out a series of frenzied, yet adept, actions. He unpacks a grocery bag, fashions eating utensils out of paper and speedily arranges and rearranges them as if their order made a difference, then demonstratively holds up a Nestlés Crunch label. The word “crunch” serves as a mnemonic substitute for the act of eating; by the time Sherman actually takes a bite out of an apple the action is redundant. We realize that we only needed to see the word describing the action or a representation of an apple to taste it. Our memories and imaginations produce experiences as rich as the putatively “real” act.

The current exhibition of work by artist Sophie Calle, which also deals with eking meaning out of the unseen, provided a fitting backdrop for Sherman’s performances. The evening ended with a portrait-type tribute entitled Sophie Calle, Private I. For her three pieces installed here, Calle interviewed people listed in an address book found on the street, asking them questions about their relationships with the owner of the book. She also photographed people as they slept, and queried blind people on their mental visions of beauty. Sherman periodically donned glasses with film-box labels for lenses and used his body and hands to “read” the framed results of Calle’s “detective work” as if they were braille.

In the film Edwin Denby, 1978, the poet is shown mimicking the act of writing, using his index finger as an ersatz pen. Ultimately, the handheld camera begins to move with the same jaunty sweeps as Denby’s hand, simultaneously erasing a clear image of the poet while cinematically sketching a visual analogue for the task of writing. Both writer and filmmaker, it is suggested, are engaged in the production of text. The fact that Denby’s text is invisible while Sherman’s is silent points to the semiotic message of this work: language is an empty structure we fill with meaning of our own devising.

Kathy O'Dell