New York

Stephen Dean

Henry Urbach Architecture

Stephen Dean’s Pulse, 2001, was one of the few high points of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and with his newest video, he again delves into the cultural use of color. Volta, 2002–2003, begins with a smattering of staccato horns and a close-up of a rippling swath of fabric, which is then pulled away to reveal hundreds of Brazilian soccer fans in a gesture that recalls a curtain rising on a performance.

Running nearly nine minutes, Volta occasionally homes in on details or wades among the fans. But mainly Dean works to present a sense of enthusiastic chaos and of how larger-scale forms and patterns are generated by crowds of people. Wearing the colors of your favorite team is one thing. But here, hundreds of fans are enveloped by their signs of devotion: Huge bandeiras unfurl over them, and their dancing and arm waving create irresistibly flowing waves of red, green, or black.

At certain moments, the crowds—green and black, red and white—recall a pointillist painting, though they’re alive with more than just optical vibration. At one point, most people have their shirts on; at another, a few fans are waving their shirts overhead like lassos, inspiring others to do the same; flesh tones gradually gain prominence among a red-and-white mix. As the crowd coalesces into hundreds of rapid flicks of a brushstroke, the video shifts into impressionism.

Tension mounts as sport’s other rituals—giant flags on poles, cheers, chants, choreographed arm waving (here, at times reminiscent of Nazi salutes), horns and drums, balloons—merge with the rapid-fire, almost rabid voice of a radio announcer. There are people parading around with flares, which threaten to ignite a flag descending through the crowd. Smoke bombs go off, orange and acrid green clouds waft toward the camera, and the sound track begins to fade. It’s a curious moment for a denouement, as the smoke turns to black. Like Pulse, Volta proposes color as a component of exuberant celebration, a means by which one can lose oneself in a crowd. But where Pulse documented Holi—a springtime Hindu street festival in which people splash dyes and pigments all over themselves and one another, marking a chance to temporarily throw off caste identity—the colors in Volta in fact signal allegiances and clarify oppositions.

Dean also draped the gallery in several shades of fabric, creating a tentlike atmosphere meant to evoke the feeling beneath a flag at a soccer match. But these inanimate swaths were no match for the video itself. In the adjacent gallery, Balance 346 and Balance 385 (both 2003), two aluminum ladders with panes of glass in varying colors installed between each rung, offered unexpected effects. Their cool formality was like a palate cleanser after the agitation of the video. These pieces are part of Dean’s ongoing exploration of color’s role in systems (paint chips, weather maps) or everyday objects (canvas cots, paperback books). In a sense, his videos mine different territory in that they incorporate humans in all their collective passion and unpredictability. In the end, though, the people function as compositional elements rather than subject matter. There is no story to Volta, only rhythm—Dean’s main interest for now remains not in social commentary but in color’s formal effects.

Julie Caniglia