New York

Lucy Gunning

Lucy Gunning believes in grace, and in the painstaking, repetitive, often abject effort grace requires. A video artist with a background in sculpture, Gunning takes as her bailiwick the small, demanding, odd performance, the strange and resonant action undertaken not for show, but out of the goofy, risky exigencies of private challenge: women pretending to be horses; the artist circumnavigating a room without touching the floor. Her recent installation, Malcolm, Lloyd, Angela, Norman, Jane, involved more syncing and aural overlay than most of her previous pieces, but her subtext remained the same: the seriousness and bathos of concentration and concerted effort. As this show demonstrated, Gunning’s formal instincts, which are subtle and elegant, combined with her obsessive subject matter, result in fluent descriptions of awkwardness and perseverance.

Five old TVs in varying sizes occupied the space, two on the floor, the others on rough wood tables. The screens were dead, buzzing in the twilight blues and violets of pause mode. Then, abruptly, one monitor leaped to life with the image of a talking head, simply and directly framed in the classic pose of the documentary interview. The subject said a few words, just enough to reveal his or her severe speech impediment; just as suddenly, the screen went blank again, as another head on another screen came on. The five tapes were synchronized so that the viewer was beckoned jerkily around the large room, always a little behind the action, always missing a good percentage of what was being said. Even when entire sound bites could be heard, they were rather difficult to understand, fractured by the staticky sound quality and the speech impediments themselves.

Gunning has a textured, loving feel for negative space, and here made the most of the outdated televisions as homey, minimal cubes, workaday bearers of communication whose audio and visual output—like the speech production of the subjects—is now deemed unfit. The sets’ plastic wood-grain rhymed with the simple wood tables—and, since the tables’ sculptural presence was quite weighty in the empty gallery, the deliberate unfinishedness of their construction seemed self-conscious. The artist also has a nuanced understanding of the video vocabulary. Her camera is proximate and intimate yet never judgmental, like a child who has no social anxiety about staring. Unlike her peers Gillian Wearing and Douglas Gordon, Gunning is not particularly interested in thematics of voyeurism or scopic allure, and her treatment of stuttering is neither clinical nor titillating. Rather, she takes the stutter as emblematic of a basic property of language, in which the struggle to articulate is universal. (It’s interesting to note that Malcolm, Lloyd, Angela, Norman, Jane represents Gunning’s first significant use of male subjects, in a piece about the failure of logos—what has become familiar in psychoanalytic discourse as a stronghold of male power.) Overlaying questions about verbal versus visual communication, Gunning also reminds us that the video analogue of the stutter is found in tropes like looping and jump cuts. As the speakers stutter, the intermittent images—and in turn the viewer's attention and movements in space—“stutter” as well. The “handicap” is shared. In their frustration and perseverance, Gunning’s subjects display a wonky kind of heroism. Effort is enacted physically but remains an accurate mirror of inner urgency—in her videos, we look at bodies in action, but we’re seeing psyches at work.

Frances Richard