New York

Paul Pfeiffer

Gagosian Gallery/The Project

In its ambition and substance one of most significant gallery shows of last fall in New York, Paul Pfeiffer’s “Pirate Jenny,” a sprawling exhibition divided between Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea and The Project uptown, confirmed the artist’s continuing fascination with time and perception, as well as his ability to manipulate both to resonant effect. If the scale of the far-flung show—which included nineteen pieces in video, film, photography, and sculpture—threatened to diffuse the overall effect of the work, it also seemed to bring certain essential aspects of Pfeiffer’s sophisticated practice into sharper focus, foregrounding elements ripe for further development as well as those that may have begun to exhaust themselves.

Pfeiffer first garnered recognition for his uncanny digital manipulations of found footage, often displayed on tiny monitors that beckoned viewers into physical intimacy with the works. “Pirate Jenny”—which cryptically references a song from The Threepenny Opera—included several examples of this approach, pieces that court proximity to accentuate the subtly eerie optical effects around which they are built. At their least convincing, they don’t aspire to much beyond this opticality, as in Live Evil (Bucharest) (all works 2004), the fourth in a series of pieces featuring digital manipulations of a Michael Jackson dance routine. Projected into the crease of a split screen that obliterates Jackson’s head and torso, the two-channel video makes the freaky pop star only slightly creepier than usual, his sequined arms and legs scuttling along Pfeiffer’s meticulously engineered vanishing point like a plump silverfish pinned in the gallery corner by beams of light.

Yet if erasures such as Live Evil can sometimes seem like technical exercises, in a work like Desiderata Pfeiffer’s redactions collaborate with the source material to produce elegant and elegiac results. Displayed on a tiny DVD player that took up perhaps one-millionth of the volume of the darkened gallery created for it at Schloss Gagosian, the three-minute loop consists of game-show footage featuring extravagant sets with all signs of life expunged from them except contestants. These abandoned fortune seekers stand with fixed smiles in the lurid daytime-television landscapes, ringed by blinking lights and great escarpments of technicolor numbers. In Pfeiffer’s reimagining, these fantasy spaces, usually stages for improbable triumph, become forlorn terrains of thwarted hope and unfulfilled desire, their cheerful ambiances irrevocably curdled with a wave of the cursor.

The regimented bodily dramas of sports and entertainment remain among Pfeiffer’s central tropes, and the enjoyment he takes in using technology to emphasize their pleasures and terrors seems undiminished. Yet “Pirate Jenny” also showcased a lesser-known strand of Pfeiffer’s practice that relies not on digital manipulation but on intensely prolonged observation. Shown at both galleries, Empire is a three-month-long real-time video projection of a queen wasp building and populating her nest. Like his first foray in the use of extreme-duration video, 2001’s Orpheus Descending—a ten-week-long document of the life cycle of a flock of chickens—Empire draws rich connections between the cycles of nature and of civilization. At The Project it was felicitously paired with Sunset Flash, a thirty-minute film loop documenting the taking of group portrait at a 2004 Pfeiffer family reunion that was perhaps the show’s most deceptively complex and beautiful piece. Shot against the backdrop of a dazzling desert sunset, the wistful film tracks Pfeiffer’s ethnically diverse extended family during the course of the shoot, capturing just the tops of the their heads at the bottom of the frame, while the sky slowly dims. People come and go until the only family member remaining is the artist’s mother—for Pfeiffer, yet another matriarch working to keep her brood together despite the inescapably fugitive nature of life.

Jeffrey Kastner