New York

John Pilson

Nicole Klagsbrun

Times have changed since John Pilson’s last New York exhibition, which had been open a week when the attacks on World Trade Center gave his photographs and videos—shot in the North Tower, where he’d had a studio—an unasked-for mythic quality. In work in that show and elsewhere, Pilson had cast the towers as the ultimate foil for his dadaist scenes of businessmen singing, balls bouncing in stairwells, and children playing in deserted offices. But now that the towers are gone, and with them, perhaps, our ability to see much humor in their negative portrayal, the artist’s subversion of the corporate latemodern “grid” has matured into a quieter, more sympathetic expression of the relation between worker and architecture.

The subject of much of the work in Pilson’s recent show is a more intimately scaled, older space—in fact, the site of another studio. In the exquisite looped short Alternate Ending (all works 2003), a lantern is raised smoothly through the dark, narrow stairwell of a ’30s-era office building, the intricate fretwork of banisters casting streaming, lacy shadows. As the lantern passes a frosted-glass door lit from behind, the camera zooms in on the nameplate, which, black against the light, is impossible to read. An eerie sense that the building’s brain lies behind that door is enhanced by the lantern, which moves like a laparoscope withdrawing from an esophagus—though the mysterious scene is less clinical than evocative of a certain subconscious vulnerability.

Elsewhere, particularly in black-and-white photographs of details of that same building, Pilson continues to pinpoint fragments of romance in the urban setting. These cropped views of tiles and table legs are timely and resigned steps away from sheer alienation and toward a wistful, uncertain homeyness. The principal video here, St. Denis, is also filled with longing. Pilson’s camera follows a woman into the ladies’ room, where she shakes out her hair, lights a cigarette, and plays a mournful song on a pink and white accordion that matches the room’s tile. A cutaway shot of a print on the wall of geese in flight over a mountain identifies her desire as peculiarly urban. Later, in a hallway, another woman paces as she describes the conditions under which she is able to fall asleep (it must be absolutely silent; she must be wearing pajamas . . .). Her topic presages the final scenes of the video, in which a man, presumably the superintendent, taps on office doors to ensure that everyone has left for the day—he’s putting the building to bed. The video ends as he turns out the lights, proceeds to a poster-plastered basement lair, changes into a colorful shirt and white cap, and leaves—a sort of embodiment of the building’s soul. In a vaguely unsettling surveillance-like shot of stairs (a Pilson staple), two men and a woman join upraised palms and quietly chant, sharing a New Age moment that feels like an exorcism—or an effort to wake the building (perhaps a dreamed extension of themselves) out of its dead sleep.

Pilson’s parsing of the individual into moments of longing and need is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s reduction of his protagonists into Beckettian caricatures of aggression and desire. But Pilson, at least in his recent work, does not share Nauman’s ambivalence toward his subjects. Dark Empire, a twenty-five-minute shot of the Empire State Building at sunset during the August blackout, crystallizes the earnestness of Pilson’s position: Unlike the glittering tower that Warhol captured in Empire, which its maker described as “Flash Gordon riding into space,” Pilson’s lonely, dark silhouette expresses only existential isolation and New York’s vulnerability to the grid. With his sensitivity to the intimacy that exists between New York and its inhabitants, Pilson is a model witness to the city’s fluctuations and rebirth.

Nell McClister