New York

Rico Gatson

Ronald Feldman Gallery

In the heyday of modernism, numerous theorists of art and architecture considered pattern and ornamentation to be synonymous with an archaic mind-set. For example, the architect Adolf Loos notoriously labeled ornament a crime against the purity of white walls, while the art historian Wilhelm Worringer argued that geometric abstraction helped “primitive” cultures live in denial of the corporeal world's frightening realities. Though not commenting directly on these early-twentieth-century biases, Rico Gatson's recent work seems geared to revive the debate. He turns well-known American films into crystalline tapestries of monstrously morphing images, rendering canonical scenes suddenly abstract and in the process temporarily alienating the viewer from the easy comforts of popular cinema.

Gatson's installation comprised five video projections (all 2001) shown on separate walls of the two-room space, paced so that only one would run at a time in each room. The works, each about the length of a music video, have rhythmic sound tracks composed of remixed snippets of music and voice-overs from the original movies. On the visual level, Gatson performs various digital manipulations, most often to kaleidoscopic effect: isolating a quarter of the film's frame, multiplying it by four, and rotating the images so they merge at the center of the screen. Fragments of identifiable scenes fill the frame for a moment, only to vanish into pure pattern in motion as the action changes.

The three works in the second room revolve around stereotypical representations of race. Gun Play borrows shoot-out scenes from Foxy Brown and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, contrasting Pam Grier's African American heroine with Clint Eastwood's ruthless white gunslinger. So-called blaxploitation films are thematized in Celebration, which takes The Mack and Superfly as raw material for a rapidly moving collage of ‘70s urban drama. The most compelling piece was Jungle Jungle, an expertly edited mélange focusing on the scene in King Kong in which Fay Wray's character is offered as a sacrifice in the natives’ ceremony. Intensifying his commentary on the film's racial subtext, Gatson used the colorized version of the 1933 original. The bright and ever-shifting patterns read as a send-up of the notion of the primal need for ornament. Wray's pale face, with its maudlin expressions of fear and suffering, alternately bobs to the surface and slips into the crevices of the dark Rorschach-like shapes of her surroundings.

In the first room, Departure, a rather ominous appropriation of Sigourney Weaver's battle with alternate life forms in Ridley Scott's 1979 classic Alien, extends the theme of otherness. The video's driving score—sampled excerpts from the film's music combined with the space- ship's recorded countdown warning Weaver's character of imminent danger—adds to the furious pace of the rolling images, which include some well-chosen shots of Weaver looking like a cornered animal. The video's tight visual structure stands in contrast to Arrival, shown on the wall opposite Departure. Here Gatson simply replays at slow speed part of the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which the Wicked Witch of the West first appears, turning the whole image upside-down at intervals. Though it's not an uninteresting treatment. it has the look of a more standard structuralist experiment and lacks the manic absurdity of the other videos.

In his best work, Gatson compels the viewer to negotiate a route through clashing visual systems: Abstraction momentarily overwhelms the known image, is quickly suppressed,and returns again. There is a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing our favorite cinematic moments dissected and reconfigured, their familiar surfaces momentarily unrecognizable, their Hollywood-style clichés briefly exposed.

Gregory Williams