New York

Bill Viola

James Cohan | 48 Walker St

Had we but world enough, and time . . . Old-master painting breathed through this show, but I also remembered the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell, and the time he imagined devoting to a lover’s body: An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze. The heart of the exhibition was a series of DVD tableaux vivants, playing on flat screens that hung on the wall like paintings or stood on pedestals like propped-open books. The images showed people caught in a range of emotional states—joy, anger, fear, awe, dream—and unlike paintings they moved, but at varying rates, so that the largest approximated a cinema in slow motion while the smallest could almost have been a photograph; but look away and then back, and the view would have changed, barely. Watching the most gradual of these works in full would mean spending nearly ninety minutes looking solely at another person’s face. An hour and a half is hardly Marvell’s century, but the experience is intimate, personal, and demanding: An age at least to every part / And the last age should show your heart.

Bill Viola developed this series through a study of medieval and early Renaissance painting, but its fusion of naturalism and psychological extremity suggests a more recent presiding spirit, Caravaggio. Darker or sadder humors weighted the scale: Dolorosa (all works woo) is a pair of screens framed together, each showing someone weeping; Union describes another man and woman, their faces pained, seemingly struggling to raise their arms in an image of difficult ascension. In any case, the snaillike pace of the enactments makes joy and sorrow kin; nearly but not quite frozen, gladness suffuses with pathos, arrested in a state of immobile life.

In Quintet of Remembrance, five men and women seem to react to some unspecified common memory or experience, though in diverse ways. The grouping suggests the bystanders in one of those biblical scenes of pity and terror that are a staple of old-master painting, while here again the visual quality of the images— their color, light, and chiaroscuro, and also their realism (for these are, of course, real people)—recalls Caravaggio. Viola has captured the seriousness of traditional Western religious painting via the simple tactic of decelerating our most demotic art forms, film and video. But to remark on the neatness of the strategy is to shortchange the emotional impact he wrings from it. And to serve old wine in new vessels is in any case no cheap trick but the stuff of art, from Picasso’s transformations of Velazquez to the backlit photographs of Jeff Wall, which rework painterly precedents more literally than Viola’s videos do.

Two more spaces contained two more works, one a large installation reflecting Viola’s long-standing fascination with the symbology of water. The piece, titled Ascension, is dramatic and strong, but Memoria, which was shown in something like a closet, is more surprising and gets farther under the skin—farther, truthfully, than do the solemn works in the main room. Here, a black-and-white view of a man’s face, shot with an aging surveillance camera, was projected on a small rectangle of silk hung loosely in the air. Faint and gray in the dark, the face was cadaverous and incorporeal yet also crawling with life, constantly disintegrating and recomposing, for the decrepit camera’s inability to shape dim light into an integral image made every pixel a free spirit. The inspiration for Memoria is surely the veronica, the cloth thought to bear a last imprint of Christ’s face. Faith electronically updated, the work is all the more creepily powerful for its atypically modest means: The grave, it tells you, is a fine and private place.

David Frankel