William Larson

Arcadia University Art Gallery

William Larson began his distinguished career as a photographer in the late ’60s, when he first identified his interests in the technology of the medium and its conventions of representation. His largely conceptual work is characterized by a sense of experiment as well as an exquisite formalist approach, both due, perhaps, to a certain freedom and aesthetic derived from his training as a painter. It’s not difficult to see in retrospect how his ongoing commitment to the language of still imagery anticipated an exploration of the moving image: From his earliest sequential photographic series to the more recent staged still composites, Larson has been so thoroughly engaged with ideas of time and space that his venture into video in 1998 was both inevitable and welcome. Larson’s work in that medium is an extension of his photographic thinking, even as it embraces a new discourse with the conventions of other related art forms.

NOTime, 2000, consists of two adjacent projections on walls that meet in a comer of the gallery. In the larger work, an old, clattering movie projector atop a small Victorian table becomes a kind of drawing machine as the film bypasses the pickup reel and unravels randomly on the floor. This action takes place in an empty studio corner that resembles its niche in Arcadia’s gallery, which supports the implied illusion that the antiquated machine depicted in the video is in fact projecting the smaller, black-and-white film loop that appears on the other wall, a 1923 clip showing bricklayers at work. The trick is further nuanced by the fact that it is only by virtue of the most up-to-date video equipment (small projectors mounted on the walls) that this distant historical present seems to come alive.

Story and image are subject to another sense of time in Mallare, 2000, a small projection in which the text of Ben Hecht’s 1922 sci-fi novel Fantazius Mallare scrolls down (backward, beginning with the last line) from the top of the screen, while simultaneously being deleted by a moving cursor and a parade of advancing numbers that references an obsession of the novel’s protagonist. The process parallels the self-destructive force of the narrative, becoming a fitting metaphor for Geoffrey Batchen’s characterization of photographic history as that which “carries within itself the process of its own erasure.”

Stretching the photographic moment, STILL and yet, 1999–2000, is a changing sequence of nine wall-size video projections of domestic scenes starring Larson’s own family. The scenes’ fixed staging recalls the painfully long poses demanded by early portraiture. Some of Larson’s images include a naturally moving element (trees outside a kitchen door, a squirming infant in a seated man’s arms), but the central figures remain motionless: A woman stares at a newspaper in bed, a large dog at her feet; the artist is poised getting in (or out of) a bathtub. The viewer encounters these tableaux almost as photographs or paintings, looking among the details for clues to a possible narrative and, held attentive, mirroring (not without some empathetic discomfort) the frozen subjects. These perpetually still but still moving images announce the material essence of film, the fact of its multiple moments, all within the ironic frame of the digital video that generates this work and the questions it raises. For the willing viewer, these are visual gifts, as generous as they are demanding.

Eileen Neff