New York

Burt Barr

There’s not much to see in Burt Barr’s videos. His work’s visual terseness, along with its frequently droll content, can come off as a dead- pan sight gag. (Dolly Shot Twice, 2000, for example, runs with a double pun, comprising two dolly-shot pans across a character, presumably named “Dolly”—played by the artist Jessica Craig-Martin— who has been made up to appear as though she has been shot twice in the head.) In light of this, one is tempted to approach his work with an eye toward “getting” the essential joke, though such attempts to interpret the five laconic black-and-white videos that made up Barr’s most recent exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. inevitably hit a dead end.

The works here largely follow a simple pattern. For each video, a camera was trained upon a single subject, for which the work was also named: The Gun, 2007, is a close-up of a hand holding a gun, which intermittently fires blanks at the camera; The Frog, 2008, and Jodi, 2008, track their respective title characters swimming aimlessly about pools of water; while the two-channel Donkey and Lightning, 2008, features, in one projection, the face of a donkey figurine stranded in the rain and, in the other, bolts of lightning streaking a night sky. (Each time the lightning flashes, the donkey’s face is illuminated, a causal relationship that created the exhibition’s most visually stunning effect.)

Focus Trisha, 2001, the earliest work of the bunch, was titled in a different manner—as, presumably, a command given to the work’s subject, Barr’s wife, the dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown. Set on a narrow strip of beach, the video shows Brown walking determinedly down the seashore toward the camera, gradually coming into focus. (Her figure is sharp only fleetingly, at the end.) There is something unexpected about a filmmaker giving an actor the burden of getting into focus, a blithe disregard for the conventions of cinematography so backward it’s comical.

While Focus Trisha was screened on a monitor, the four most recent works were projected onto the wall, intended, as the press release states, to hang “as paintings, or, more appropriately, black-and-white photographs.” Taken as such, they are stills that are not quite still, Pop epigrams more redolent of Warhol’s screen tests than of the early, formally abstruse, conceptually oriented videos of Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, or Bruce Nauman that—aesthetically at least—they also recall. (Indeed, The Gun resembles a detail of Warhol’s Elvis paintings, themselves based on a publicity still for the film Flaming Star [1960].)

It’s difficult to situate Barr within contemporary conversations about video art; his works seem unconcerned with the expressionistic, seemingly Ritalin-fueled hyperbole of artists-of-the-moment like Ryan Trecartin, Tamy Ben-Tor, or Erkka Nissinen. If anything, the videos’ languid pace and circularity (only Focus Trisha seems to have a trajectory, a firm beginning and end) brings to mind the Zen tranquility of a computer screen saver. If there is a popular visual analogy for The Frog, for example, it is the (now less pervasive, but still iconic) Aquarium software on old Apple computers.

And they are like that, in a way—a time-out from the aggressive antics of spectacle, an ascetic field of undemanding observation. If there is some meaning to be gleaned from Focus Trisha, it is probably that life is finite and memory fuzzy, that human relationships are filled with absurd demands; but what’s most compelling about the video is the staunch manner in which Trisha trudges toward the camera and the lens’s resolute indifference to her as a subject. Similarly, it is not the meaning (whatever it might be) of the mute wet mule that fascinates in Donkey and Lightning, but the beast’s uncanny, haunted expression when lit up by the flashes. It is there, in the works’ faces, not their minds, that they engage.

David Velasco