New York

Gareth James

Elizabeth Dee Gallery

Despite the rise of computer animation, many of the special effects we see in movies and on television are created using an old technique in which subjects are shot in front of a featureless blue screen that is later replaced by a different background. When used skillfully, blue-screen imaging lends perceptual credence to fantasy; when used poorly (as it frequently is in basic-cable talk shows, corporate motivational videos, and local-news weather reports) it gives rise to a grab bag of optical anomalies—absence of parallax, actors with halos around their bodies—that add up to a uniquely dismal visual vernacular. For Gareth James, bluescreen blue, a sort of chromatic cipher that is everywhere and nowhere at once, is the heraldic color of contemporary capitalism, emblematizing the system that keeps us entertained while it insinuates itself into every aspect of our lives. Its baleful ultramarine was the unifying element in his recent solo exhibition, “Blue Movie (one more time . . . this time with feeling).”

In the main gallery four small sculptures sat on pedestals constructed from stacked pieces of bubble wrap with slabs of mirrored Plexiglas on top. These respectively depict, in variously abstracted forms: the shoddily constructed Jerusalem banquet hall that collapsed during a wedding celebration in 2001; Staten Island’s Garibaldi Memorial; a cute but ominous little truck with a cagelike cab; and a violin. Each is made out of a single piece of cut and folded bright blue paper, its intricate structures mapped out in a graphite drawing on the opposite wall. Set on a strip of blue carpet in front of the sculptures was a pair of mirrored-Plexi plinths, from one of which faintly emanated the sound of Gavin Bryars’s mesmeric composition “Jesus Blood.” On view in the back gallery was an eight-minute video in which young subway buskers idle around a pair of overturned plastic buckets while Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (1944) is heard on the sound track. When a performer picks up drumsticks and starts to play, the buckets transform themselves into crude animations of the Plexi plinths.

The overall visual effect of the show—with its preponderance of cheap but scintillatingly cool blue and silvery materials—was an elegant mockery of corporate office design or science-fiction movie sets. But the key material here was paper, and the key operation (as other critics have noted vis-à-vis James’s earlier shows) was folding, the means by which a single object may vacillate from 2-D to 3-D, sculpture to drawing, and thus occupy a neither-nor space in between—just as the blue screen occupies an ambiguous zone between immanence and absence. The significance of the various cultural and historical narratives alluded to in the show was left to the viewer to puzzle out, a task that required recourse to external sources: A talk with the gallery staff revealed, for example, that James is interested in the Jerusalem building collapse because it was initially blamed on a terrorist bomb, and that for him, this rush to judgment exemplifies the way in which obscuring thickets of ideology may cause us to misread events. But no amount of research will allow for a static, self-contained reading of James’s complex enterprise, for the simple reason that the economic and political systems he examines are neither static nor self-contained. He seems less concerned with articulating meanings than with devising a way of making and representing that is commensurate with—and therefore perhaps capable of capturing and resisting—the diffuse, nonlinear, and extra-linguistic logic by which those systems operate.

Elizabeth Schambelan