New York

Christopher Miner

Mitchell-Innes & Nash | Chelsea

“I still don’t know what to do with myself.” The postcollegiate narrator of Christopher Miner’s seventeen-minute video The Best Decision Ever Made, 2004, is a profoundly dissatisfied soul. Recalling a visit to his grandparents’ house on the occasion of his grandmother’s funeral (grandpa passed on some years previously, we learn), he contrasts their apparently effortless contentment with the frustrating directionlessness of his own life. As the camera drifts around the unassuming home, with its threadbare backyard and bland small-town environs, the dolorous voice-over sketches an overqualified, under-motivated individual perpetually troubled by his own apparent inability to commit to a partner, a job, an interest, even an emotion other than nebulous ennui.

Though projected almost as large as the main wall in the gallery’s sizable first room allowed, The Best Decision Ever Made is determinedly uncinematic, relying on slow-moving sequences of near-still shots of the departed’s battered furniture and humble tchotchkes filmed in drab natural light. But the low-key visual style is entirely consistent with the video’s downbeat theme and mood. As his account moves from memories of childhood to reflections on an unfulfilling present and still-uncertain future, Miner’s narrator seems to echo other restless young men, from Albert Camus’ Meursault to J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, or, in a more contemporary vein, Benjamin Kunkel’s Dwight Wilmerding. A scene in which our antihero sits listening to an old Johnny Cash record and meditating Jesus’s certainty that everything that happened to him, however appalling, was at least “part of the plan,” wraps up this (autobiographical?) confession and leaves us similarly vacillating between engagement and boredom, empathy and exasperation.

The subject of the show’s other video, Self-Portrait, 2000, certainly has more self-confidence, but otherwise does little to endear himself to the viewer. We watch and listen to—apparently from behind the screen of a worn-out TV—a young man (Miner) engaged in a less-than-edifying telephone conversation. His withering assessment of talk show host Jay Leno—“Ain’t a goddamn funny thing about the white motherfucker!”—is typical of his foul mouth and jaundiced perspective, and the flickering blue light in which he is cast does nothing to make him any more appealing. Dressed in a wife-beater and slumped forward with eyes lowered, the receiver cradled between his shoulder and jaw, he repeats the same few uninspired banalities over and over again.

After a few minutes, the discussion turns to the subject of an unnamed individual who has, reportedly, been risking a serious ass- kicking for “trying to talk like a black man.” It’s at this point that things get weird as well as unpleasant, since Self-Portrait’s abrasive star seems to be guilty of exactly the pretense he condemns. Whether he is unaware of or in denial about the stereotypically African-American idiom he effects, or is consciously aiming to mislead, the confusion his speech engenders is profound. “It’s racism, motherfucker!” he rants at his unseen friend, but the extent to which he feels, or should feel, personally affronted is questionable. We are immediately wrong-footed, uncertain of what our reaction to an apparent glaring inconsistency should be. The most obvious parallel is with British (white, Jewish) comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who achieved notoriety for his suburban street-kid character Ali G by demanding of an argumentative but PR-conscious cop, “Is it ’cos I is black?”

Pairing the two works under the title “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be,” Miner draws inspiration from his Mississippi upbringing in confronting the perennially hot-button topics of family and aspiration, religion and race. That he is able to do so without lapsing into cliché—except when it serves his purpose—is testament to a potentially significant talent.

Michael Wilson