New York

“Young and Restless”

When Jean-Luc Godard showed producers a rough cut of his film Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), featuring megastar Brigitte Bardot, they were aghast to find the film devoid of nudity and demanded scenes with “BB” in the buff. Godard complied but used distancing devices that included colored filters. While heightening the spectator’s awareness of Bardot’s status as a commodity—a status echoed in the film’s tragic narrative—the filters also rendered her body an integral part of a color scheme at once hypermodern and classical. Based on Contempt, Cheryl Donegan’s Line, 1996, does not, the artist maintains, “seek to analyze or critique the Godard film, but to use it as a . . . classical language through which other stories can be told.” Donegan borrows Godard’s reds, blues, and yellows but references the paintings of Barnett Newman; mimicking the filmmaker as well as the male and female protagonists, she peers through a plastic container, flips through a monograph on Newman, mouths phrases from the film, and paints lines with her foot—invoking a shot that fetishizes Bardot’s. In generating parallel narratives, she suggests her own uneasy relationship to a far from neutral Modernism.

Line’s plastic-jug-as-camera gives added resonance to Donegan’s vivid simulation of erotic abandon, Head, 1993, in which she pleasures a container spurting milk. Both numbered among the twenty-one videos in “Young and Restless” (organized by guest curator Stephen Vitiello, with Sally Berger and Barbara London), a recent series of works by seventeen artists, all female and all based in New York. Many of the videos had been seen in New York before (or documented earlier performances in the city), but what was arresting about the show was the work’s cumulative strength—bearing out the curators’ claim that this was “not so much an exhibition about ‘youth’ as a recognition of a youthful energy that has returned to video.” In addition to Donegan’s videos, many works—in particular Tatiana Parcero’s Life Lines, 1995, Linda Post’s Shore and Crack (both 1996), and Nurit Newman’s Respite, 1996—contained echoes of the early days of the medium, recalling performance-based videos by artists like Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann, and Bruce Nauman. If the influence of ’70s video work was a vital thread running through much of the series, an ambiguous, often ironic relationship to television and other electronic media was another. Kristin Lucas’ densely layered videos obsess over a potential loss of identity in the face of technological overload, while Anne Kugler’s Psionic Summoning, 1996, is a low-tech tale of impregnation by television. In her effervescent, sardonically stylish Interiors, 1996, Alix Pearlstein plays various roles, including a housewife in wedgies, a “domesticated statue,” and the Energizer Bunny, continually redecorating a space that is equal parts dream home, white cube, and boob tube—a labyrinth of embedded stereotypes. At once a defense of pop culture and a critique of media representation, Alex Bag’s hilarious Untitled Fall ’95, 1995, presents the slow transformation of an SVA art student from a ludicrous caricature into a young woman of credible seriousness and insight, who pleads, “Don’t label me!,” or muses, “I know I’m not stupid because I work really hard every day to learn and to put things together and find allies and grow.”

Equated by the curators with “gesture and form,” the restlessness evoked in the show’s title ran the gamut from Vanessa Beecroft’s bevy of beige-clad models, suppressing yawns and fidgets, in her Piano Americano, 1995, to Phyllis Baldino’s collection of manically brief narratives, In the Present, 1996. In Jocelyn Taylor’s sensual and lucid mix of documentary and fantasy, Bodily Functions, 1995, it takes the form of a trance that echoes the avant-garde films of Maya Deren. To a hypnotic beat, a group of lesbians narrate harrowing and humorous stories of trauma and self-discovery; these sequences are intercut with provocative intertitles and images, including shots of a nude Taylor walking through New York City, seated nonchalantly in a Prince Street subway station, appearing to emerge from the sea at sunset, and, finally, running in slow motion through empty streets.

Linda Post’s Shore, perhaps the least artful of the works in “Young and Restless,” a series in which formal open-endedness prevailed, provided the neatest metaphor for recurring themes, such as the pleasures, anxieties, and ambiguities of sexual and creative self-definition, as well as the uncertainty of youth. Orphaned at the edge of the sea, Post’s camera is spattered with spray and sand, knocked off kilter, even momentarily buoyed by waves, but never washed away, seeming (as a surrogate for the artist) almost to enjoy courting and surviving disaster. Viewing the work in “Young and Restless” was similarly bracing.

Kristin M. Jones