Chicago

Ben Russell

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Ben Russell picked a fine word when he chose trip as the lexicographical genesis of “Trypps,” the experimental film series he’s been producing since 2005. Though idiosyncratic, the name serves as a catchall for every kind of trip in the dictionary, explored in this startlingly broad but ultimately cohesive series.

Not all at once, of course. Black and White Trypps Number One (2005) begins like an old-school avant-garde film, with all the formal qualities of cinematic head trips: The now-classic imaging of scratches and dust on celluloid (here augmented by spray paint applied directly to the negative) intensifies to an apocalyptic, kaleidoscopic fervor, suggesting space junk, TV snow, real snow, even a cyberpunk snow crash. Black and White Trypps Number Two (2006) takes the simple subject of tree branches, portrays the form in negative and positive, and then mirrors the footage to induce an intensely complex trancelike visual trip. Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007) spotlights a cluster of fans, packed body to body, dancing at a Lightning Bolt show, looking greasy, desperate, and semiconscious. Russell slows down their movement and the work becomes a chiaroscuro of pale young zealots in ecstasy. In Black and White Trypps Number Four (2008), Russell takes the pure black-and-white ground of cinema and goes racial, overlaying dust-flecked white leader with the audio of a Richard Pryor sketch in which the black comedian uses the ridiculousness of white people as his raw material. The work then transitions into performance footage of Pryor that Russell formally trips up, sequencing it as a flicker. Traveling to the other side of the globe, Trypps #5 (Dubai) (2008) and Trypps #6 (Malobi) (2009) offer a kind of deliberately botched ethnographic documentation: A static, fragmented shot of flashing neon signage depicts Dubai, and wandering footage of Surinamese villagers dressed up in garish Halloween masks in orgiastic dance gives an oblique view onto that African community.

Which brings us to Trypps #7 (Badlands) (2010), the centerpiece of Russell’s exhibition. (While the full series was shown for one night in the MCA theater, Trypps #7 screened continuously in its own installation for the duration of the exhibition.) This most recent “Trypps” pictures a young woman, lovely against the harsh, monumental landscape of the South Dakota Badlands, her long hair blowing in the high winds, the sky a brilliant blue. We watch the woman’s face register expressions of glory, chill, incredulity, fascination, and fatigue as she trips out on LSD.

Here, as with other “Trypps,” Russell is never simply a traditional documentarian—nor a formalist—nor a phenomenologist—nor a film buff saturating his work with cinematic and art-historical references, but a compelling combination of them all. When his camera captures the subject of Trypps #7 in her intoxicated splendor, he is an anthropologist, but when the frame shakes, then spins on a horizontal axis, then reveals itself as a mirror image—a cracked one—out seep the afterimages of Land art, Robert Smithson’s “Mirror Displacements” in particular. Meanwhile, the flickering landscape multiplies deliriously along a line of mirrors extending the screen onto the surrounding walls, involving the audience in the film both experientially as viewers, and as visual objects to be seen. Trypp the light fantastic!

Lori Waxman