London

Peter Coffin and Djordje Ozbolt

Our expectation upon entering a dark, black-curtained gallery is that we will be watching some “new media” projection. But no: In this collaborative work by installation artist Peter Coffin and painter Djordje Ozbolt, Untitled (Djordje Ozbolt) (all works 2008), five small paintings hang on a wall in a darkened room. One by one, in sequence, each picture is brightly lit for a minute or so—the first a bit longer than the rest. The lighting on each picture varies. Four spotlights dance over a work subtitled Health and Safety, in which a monkey cavorts in some depthless gymnasium or construction site; or a bolt of lightning flashes on Lady in Red, a stormy landscape centering on a standing female figure. There is a pause of a few seconds in pitch-blackness before the next painting is illuminated; each new light triggers a sound track related to the momentarily visible image. Chirping birds and fading music (Cambodian rock) accompany Early Christmas, a painting of a lone tree pitifully adorned with a string of holiday lights; operatic singing is heard behind a painting subtitled Carmen. The work shows an orangutan in a tree singing to an elegantly dressed, bearded gentleman in an old-fashioned black suit who, it would seem, we last saw in 1862, enjoying a déjeuner sur l’herbe with two friends in a Parisian suburb.

In fact, the whole Coffin/Ozbolt viewing experience seems to belong to the nineteenth century, conjuring the days of precinematic devices and entertainments like magic lanterns or Victorian peep shows. The entire sequence of five paintings takes just over six minutes to watch, but it seems to last an eternity. Not that it’s boring, but twenty-first-century viewers just aren’t used to looking at a single painting for an entire minute—or more! One is reminded of visiting certain churches, where a famous altarpiece is plunged in darkness until we drop a coin in a machine to briefly switch on a light. Looking at art with a timer slows the experience down: Nervously, we stay put until the light goes out, then wait for the next episode to appear.

Critics belonging to the first October generation were suspicious of those who would insist on modernist painting’s transcendent optical effects. Untitled (Djordje Ozbolt) confirms this criticism and takes it to a childish and parodic extreme, theatricalizing the visual experience with the addition of spotlights and special effects. As the overall title tells us, the subject of the work is Ozbolt’s enigmatic paintings; Coffin’s light show is merely an embellishment. Just as director John Waters playfully added “Odorama” to his 1982 camp film Polyester, Coffin delights in drawing our nonvisual senses—primarily hearing—into play while enhancing the potential for narrative in each mysterious image. Coffin’s overlaid son et lumière exemplifies the kind of experimental hybridity with which contemporary musical genres overlap. What is surprising is that this latest chapter in the history of painting should turn out to be so nostalgic, so reminiscent of an old-fashioned amusement arcade, so unexpectedly innocent.

Gilda Williams