Tony Oursler

Visiting a show of Tony Oursler’s sculpture-based video projections is unsettling and surreal on several levels. First, disparate voices accost the viewer from multiple directions, literally calling out for attention but at the same time blurring together into a cacophonous mass of sound. Then there are the video images of usually disembodied faces or even parts of faces—just an eye or a mouth—that register as creepily real in the same way puppets can. These often pathetic figures seem eerily imprisoned, repeating the same words over and over again.

Formally, the seven sculpture-video fusions in “Vertical Loop Task” (all works 2010) come off as variations on these previous, well-established ideas. Not as assaultive as some of Oursler’s earlier works—such as Don’t Look at Me, 1994, in which a squashed dummy cries out, “Get away from me!”—the projected video monologues are riddled with anxiety and awash in neurotic self-reflection, sounding like utterances that might emanate from a patient on a psychologist’s sofa. Continuing Oursler’s recent exploration of compulsive activity and risk—the cycle of pleasure and pain—the works here take on the history of mining in Aspen, which was founded as a mining camp and reached its early zenith during the silver boom of the 1890s (before being reinvented as a ski resort and cultural center after World War II). In Mazed, for example—a work the artist describes as “Ad Reinhardt Pac-Man”—a flat-screen monitor offers a cross-sectional view of a black warren of rectangular rooms and passageways. Positioned within this mine-cum–geometric abstraction are small figures and a single burning fire. As the piece progresses, with the ambient sound of digging but no words, some of the figures move, shifting slowly along as though in an old-fashioned video game. They appear locked in the proverbial rat race, endlessly reprising their actions in Sisyphean fashion.

Among the most compelling of the offerings is Tungsten Hump, an installation featuring many of the aspects of Oursler’s best work, including his quirky mix of high technology and everyday, found objects. The piece consists of a barrel on its side, with a cylindrical section of plastic pipe propped against it. Oursler enlivens these otherwise unremarkable objects with two video projections. Seen on the cylinder is a giant cigarette, which slowly burns down as smoke appears to waft up the wall behind. Projected on the bottom of the barrel is a discolored, weathered face. The visage delivers a rambling introspective monologue, asking at one point, “Hey, where am I?” Consumed by addiction, the man has dug himself into a veritable hole.

Also on view were fifteen mixed-media paintings and drawings on canvas and wood panel. Many of these incorporate collaged photographs depicting the mouths of tunnels and mining shafts, while others include trompe l’oeil renderings of holes through the picture plane. Even though Oursler began his career as a painter and had a recent drawing retrospective in Germany, these works hold comparatively little interest, and a few, such as Drag Shaft, seem atypically slapdash. It is Oursler’s video works that have brought him international recognition, and those are what stand out here.

Kyle MacMillan