New York

Tony Oursler

Metro Pictures

Watching a video in a gallery can’t help but remind us of watching TV at home, even if the artist is inspired, as in much recent work, to make the image very large. This is a problem not because TV is bad, but because it is good, that is to say, compelling. Put Who’s the Boss next to Bill Viola, and most people will eyeball the former. One solution to this no-win contest is to combine video with other media, as Tony Oursler does in his spectacular hybrids.

Oursler is best known for projecting videotaped faces onto blank, three-dimensional oval shapes that minimally suggest heads. This show improved on the formula, stressing abjectness through the use of more elaborate forms on which to screen the videos: strikingly large fiberglass skulls and plaster casts of objects like dildos and votive statues (the latter unfortunately somewhat clichéd). Although the skulls share the blank whiteness of his earlier “heads,” they complicate the work both visually and psychologically, emphasizing the gulf between the animated (though absent) videotaped people and the inanimate (but present) objects.

Oursler’s show trafficked in death, decay, and the inevitable march of time. “Heavy” texts on death and image-making (both read aloud over speakers and projected on objects), however, do not automatically confer gravitas onto vanitas. And too many art-historical references (Vanity, 1998, recalls Dürer with its instruments of art and knowledge) or kitsch associations (the jewels leaking from the eye socket of Hole, 1998, call to mind the pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyworld) can undercut the subject matter. In these instances, the works function more as plays on traditional still life than as something approaching a true contemporary vanitas along the lines of, say, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work.

Oursler might reply to these criticisms by saying he was being ironic; if so, I missed the irony (and liked the seriousness). The temporality of video is peculiarly well suited to the fleeting sense of time implicit in the vanitas, and there were pieces here that worked well. In Poetry, 1998, Oursler projects on the inside of a skull-shaped death mask a video shot from the viewpoint of a person walking through a graveyard. The beautiful images powerfully connect interior thought and physical movement through the world. In my favorite piece, Still Life, 1998, the recorded features of different people commingle freakishly, and the skull-scrim rests atop a pile of books on subjects like dissociation and memory distortion.

An artist of Oursler’s generation and of the NYC/Cal Arts milieu probably would not consider “grown-up” to be a complimentary verdict. But particularly after the aggressive adolescence in recent work by many of his peers, Oursler’s own exhibition was encouragingly adult.

Katy Siegel