James Coleman

This exquisite show is essentially a mini-retrospective of the Irish artist James Coleman’s work. Three of the nine pieces on display are from the early ’70s, when Coleman was still working primarily with silent 16 mm black-and-white film loops, among them the intriguing Playback of a Daydream, 1974, projected on a small screen on the stage of the museum’s film auditorium. The viewer encounters not a moving picture but a single static image: Joseph Jastrow’s famous duck-rabbit drawing, in which both animals can be seen, but not simultaneously. Each blinds the viewer to the other. The projected image becomes doubly ambivalent when one takes into account that it is at once static and perpetually in motion.

A similar ambiguity is operative in the slide-projector piece Connemara Landscape, 1980, which features a single image of seemingly abstract and disjointed black shapes. Only when the viewer moves to the side, almost up against the wall, does the anamorphic image of the landscape begin to appear. Once again, vision hides as much as it reveals. In La Tache Aveugle, 1978–90, a series of slides presented with the aid of two projectors, each frame morphing into another over a twenty-minute duration, the hours-long process of dissolving and metamorphosing is almost imperceptible. The images derive from a brief sequence of James Whale’s 1933 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, in which the scientist, Dr. Griffin, discovers and consumes a formula that enables him temporarily to disappear. Though we never actually see the invisible man, we conceptually project him into the scene because of the source of the images.

In several installations, sound tracks accompany the projected images. For instance, in Photograph, 1998–99, a multiple slide sequence that is the newest piece in this show, a woman’s disembodied voice recites passages of Romantic poetry, evoking a child’s world of fantasy, play, and imagination as we watch adolescents in various poses rehearse for a school pageant. The images and the audio track do not directly correspond, foregrounding the discrepancies between recorded sound and vision, and in turn between the two senses themselves.

Indeed, sound—specifically its contrapuntal manipulation has become as important as the visual elements in Coleman’s work. The placement of the speakers and acoustic panels that direct and contain the sound is as meticulous and precise as the composition of the projected images and spoken texts. This is apparent already in the fifty-four-minute video installation So Different . . . and Yet, 1980. On the videotape, a woman appears to be suspended or floating in a blue box screen. Because of the accord between the image and the sound, her voice, which narrates a series of stories, seems to come from the monitor. By contrast, offstage voices in dialogue with her emerge from two speakers mounted on columns in front of the monitor. Since these voices seem to come from the location of the spectator, the latter is incorporated into the performance. As a result, one is inclined to listen more attentively to the dialogue, except at those moments when the woman's voice reinforces the visual image. So Different . . . and Yet demonstrates the interconnection and discrepancies between perception and interpretation, vision and sound. Insofar as even the slightest visual or audio shifts in these works are capable of producing new perspectives, they at once point to the inherent unreliability of the senses and the ease with which they can be manipulated.

Alexander Alberro