New York

Paul Pfeiffer

The Project

A SMASH AT BOTH the Whitney Biennial and P.S. 1's “Greater New York” and the inaugural recipient of the Whitney's Bucksbaum Award, Paul Pfeiffer is on everybody's shortlist of discoveries. Expectations were predictably high for his first solo exhibition since last spring's double triumph—but the results were mixed. Like any artist. when Pfeiffer is mediocre, he's mediocre. Unlike most, however, when he's good, he's brilliant.

The show opened with an oversize bathtub installed complete with tiled walls, plastic curtain, and running shower (all works 2000). The 1:1% scale brought on a pleasant sense of dislocation, but the tub was surrounded by a metal superstructure that interrupted the viewer's physical engagement with the work and diminished the effect of the enlargement. Cameras mounted on this armature fed black-and-white close-ups of the shower's interior to a split-screen monitor located in an adjacent room. The press release explained that the tub was a blown-up reproduction of the Bates Motel fixture in Psycho and that the work's title was Self-Portrait as a Fountain, after the well-known 1966-67 photograph of Bruce Nauman spitting a stream of water. Without these clues, the piece fell flat. But with them, it turned hyperbolic. Cleverness flickered in the nod to surveillance cameras (we watched Pfeiffer watching Hitchcock and Nauman—and by extension, Douglas Gordon), but the auteur references had a tacked-on feel, and the video was surprisingly dull.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was likewise a combination of overdetermined content and underrealized form. The clouds of washed-out color in this quartet of large Cibachromes were appealing, but again, the work's impact depended on a combination of title and underlying concept. The title, of course, recalls Albrecht Dürer's fifteenth-century woodcut personifying Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence. The images, meanwhile, derive from studio portraits of Marilyn Monroe; the love goddess has been digitally erased, leaving only strangely atmospheric backdrops. Nearby, 24 Landscapes, a group of blandly pretty, unpopulated ocean photographs, was based on another well-known Monroe sequence. Had Pfeiffer managed to embed the Monroe connection in the images themselves, their air of mournful immanence would have clicked. As it was, their content—presumably a meditation on cultural icons, disappearance, and memory—relied too heavily on unintegrated information.

Disappointment over these works, however, evaporated before Pfeiffer's magisterial video sculpture The Long Count (I Shook Up the World). Cantilevered from the wall on a long arm, a small LCD monitor seemed to levitate, forcing viewers to gaze upward in an attitude of devotion. In silvery near-black-and-white, The Long Count pans across the shouting crowd at a boxing match; sartorial details fix the date as the mid-'60s. The ring is foregrounded, but there are no boxers in it, just a kind of undulating presence, like tremors in a sheet of mercury. All the fans are white; it might occur to the viewer that the missing boxers probably are black. In the time it takes to think these thoughts, it registers that the film's surface disturbance limns the feinting, jabbing pugilists, whose bodies have been digitally removed. Expunged as objects of voyeuristic fixation, the athletes remain as mobile plasma animating the scene, a scrim through which the audience in the gallery confronts the audience in the arena, while Pfeiffer and his technological manipulations face down the still photographers crouching ringside. Race and history, sport and violence coalesce in a single frame. The phrase “the long count” refers to an unduly extended knockout count—in other words, to an artificially lengthened moment of closure and demise. Pfeiffer's work invites the moving image to betray itself as an unreliable zone of motionless time and compressed space, in which even spectacular events and iconic presences are reduced to the condition of Pfeiffer's fighters: their substance leached away, their mass etherealized—and theatricalized—as pulse and suggestion. The simple work is spellbinding and needs no supporting context. However, when one learns that the particular bout in The Long Count is Cassius Clay's epic 1964 defeat of Sonny Liston, the piece takes on an even sharper edge. This is video deployed as a truly autonomous form, one that is uniquely situated to reveal and interrogate its own complicitous role in the production of cultural power. It is a form that Pfeiffer has clearly mastered.

Frances Richard