New York

Donald Moffett

As critics increasingly lament video art’s dependence on the “black box,” many artists have been trying to revise the shopworn standards, technical and formal, for projecting images. Donald Moffett’s tactic has been to allow the distinct representational strategies of painting and video to collide in ways that highlight certain historical preconceptions about each medium. For his latest New York show, Moffett eschewed the kind of relatively direct digital analogy to painting seen recently in the work of artists like Jeremy Blake; instead, he took on painting’s familiar visual field as a support structure for the moving image.

The exhibition, titled “The Extravagant Vein,” contained eight works, each made up of a video projected, in exact alignment, onto a stretched, painted canvas. This underlying structure, a web of drips and skeins of oil and enamel paints, makes obvious reference to the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock and its attendant myths of creative abandon and untrammeled subjectivity. Done mostly in a metallic paint reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s gold-leaf paintings, with patches of blues or reds occasionally visible, these reflective surfaces provide a backdrop for video footage shot in the Ramble of New York’s Central Park, where meandering walkways and dense shrubbery have long encouraged both bird-watching and gay cruising. Straightforward views of the winding paths, rustic architecture, and dense foliage of pastoral Manhattan appear to float before a shiny ground. In Gold/Tupelo Plains, 2003, a split image projected onto two panels, a lone man slowly wanders through the woods toward the camera before he disappears again into the trees. Barely perceptible at first are two others, sitting in the shade, partially hidden in their urban sanctuary. In other works, such as Gold/Blue Sky, 2003, the lens is trained from below onto branches swaying in the wind.

Moffett’s simple, silent record of social patterns and natural forms, superimposed on abstract imagery suggesting narratives of euphoric release, results in a clash of representational codes: the public versus the private, object versus subject. Although this layering might seem somewhat blunt, even gimmicky, the general concept of projection serves as a thematic anchor that holds the series together. At the formal level, Moffett experiments with the status of the screen while simultaneously drawing attention to the artificiality of lighting methods in galleries. On a metaphorical level, the seemingly infinite expanse within the frame of an Abstract Expressionist painting merges with the blissful space of the city park: two repositories of libidinal energy.

In an adjacent space, Moffett presented a suite of drawings produced in 2001 called Mr. Gay in the U.S.A. They revolve around a trial, witnessed by Moffett, in which a man named Ronald Gay was convicted of murder after shooting patrons of a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia, for “dishonoring” his family name. As in “The Extravagant Vein,” the drawings fall somewhere between forthright documentation and impressionistic doodling, shifting from a drawing of the defendant in profile to one giving a hazy view of empty courtroom benches. Both projects involve a balancing act as Moffett inserts his own subjectivity into public settings while maintaining a strong degree of observational detachment. In the process, he reaffirms the ultimate incommensurability of these two positions without losing sight of the spaces in which they might overlap.

Gregory Williams