Gary Hill

Donald Young Gallery

Of the eight works in Donald Young Gallery’s recent Gary Hill micro-retrospective—dating from 1978 to 2005—Accordions (The Belsunce Recordings, July 2001), 2001–2002, is the largest. A room-filling video installation, its five projectors generate a jarring sequence of images, each staccato snippet accompanied by a dissonant sound track of blips and crackles. Hill shot the footage in Belsunce, a working-class area of Marseilles with a large population of French Algerians. Employing his camera as a tool of casual surveillance, the artist captured short street-life vignettes, zooming in and out with the seemingly unpremeditated glance of a passerby. In the installation, these images usually appear and accrete for no more than a few seconds, just long enough to communicate a sense of the complex postcolonial reality of the French Algerians, of their existence within a structure that they are simultaneously part of and “other” to. Hill, always drawn to the ambiguities of such liminal states, illuminates their urban tapestry in a way that makes overtly neat political or sociological categorizations pat and inadequate.

This achievement notwithstanding, Hill’s recent work displays a quality of whimsy and even humor rather unexpected from an artist whose projects have tended to be marked by a determined solemnity. Even the title of Big Legs Don’t Cry, 2005, has an exuberant air, fully borne out by the work itself. Part of an ongoing series of computer-generated videos shown on LCD monitors, it depicts a man’s legs and feet, clad in pressed tan slacks and brown shoes, standing atop an open book. From time to time the pages of the book turn, passing through the legs as if they were phantoms. Text leaves this contemporary everyman untouched and unmoved; he stands above it, literally and figuratively. In Church and State, 2005, a digitally rendered goat and sheep wander aimlessly around a screen’s black space, oblivious to one another despite both being penned in by the frame of the monitor. Occasionally they walk into and through each other, unaffected and unperturbed by their solely digital collision. And while this neutrality makes a concise political reading of this work problematic, the sense of indifferent instinctual meandering might reflect on the operations of church and state as both reliant on a similarly domesticated herd mentality.

A video projection features French actress Isabelle Huppert, casually dressed and shot from different angles in a generic interior. Is a Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky, 2005 (note the pun on the actress’s name), shows her straight on and, in a second image shown next to the first, from further below, the paired images affirming the instinctive sense of authority and power conceded to someone looked at from below. Huppert knows how to pose for a camera, and she is particularly adept at conveying emotional nuances by doing little more than standing still, shifting her weight, or crossing her arms. Each placing of a hand on a hip, each fiddle with a cuff, gets doubled in presentation, the variation of camera angle emphasizing the confluence of stability and instability of which Hill remains a master.

James Yood