Los Angeles

View of “William E. Jones,” 2011. From left: Berlin Flash Frames, 2010; In Mathew Brady’s Studio, 2010.

View of “William E. Jones,” 2011. From left: Berlin Flash Frames, 2010; In Mathew Brady’s Studio, 2010.

William E. Jones

View of “William E. Jones,” 2011. From left: Berlin Flash Frames, 2010; In Mathew Brady’s Studio, 2010.

Three time-based works dominated William E. Jones’s third solo show at David Kordansky Gallery. Projected floor-to-ceiling on three contiguous walls, In Mathew Brady’s Studio, Berlin Flash Frames, and Spatial Disorientation—silent works (all 2010) that employ, respectively, zooms, flash frames, and aerial photography—felt aggressive, at times even dizzying in total. (Loosely recalling the enticing dare of Tony Conrad’s disclaimer at the outset of The Flicker, 1966, there was even a warning posted on Kordansky’s gallery door cautioning viewers about the potentially dangerous physiological results of subjecting oneself to the stroboscopic images within.)

Curiously, each of Jones’s works was described not as a film or video, but rather as a “sequence of digital files.” This phrasing explicitly suggests the complex technological materiality of these constructions—particularly in relation to the obsolescent analogue source material, scanned and altered, then reassembled in postproduction—while also hinting at Jones’s gradual but nearly schematic transition from independent filmmaker to gallery-oriented artist. If terms such as film and video provide grounding in the familiar, then Jones appears to be as invested in upending semantics as he is in unsettling the body.

In his 1975 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes compares the experience of watching a movie (any movie, presumably) to that of “taking off”—a sensation he relates to both aeronautic movement and hallucination. Jones’s Spatial Disorientation, which deploys swooping, spiraling footage shot from a US Air Force fighter jet in 1969, achieves a similarly turbulent effect, with “washes” of magenta, red, and aqua added by the artist. (Notably, unlike Barthes’s spectator, who “takes off” while remaining comfortably in his theater seat, Jones’s viewers were offered nowhere to sit except the floor.) Berlin Flash Frames similarly incorporates found footage—in this case, a staged “documentary” about and around the then newly constructed Berlin Wall, which the artist uncovered in the US National Archives. Using the unedited source film’s probable “leftovers”—images of an actor between takes, the filmmaker’s slate, incidental flash frames—the artist pointed to the propaganda’s constructedness.

On an adjacent wall, In Mathew Brady’s Studio positioned loops of images scanned from Reconstruction-era portrait photographs in a triptych arrangement. The central image features a succession of a hundred portraits taken by Brady of US political leaders in the wake of the Civil War, with Jones relentlessly zooming in on the sitters’ eyes. This projection was flanked by images focused on Brady’s recurring studio props: a fabric patterned with a Greek “key” motif and an opulent vase with a floral relief. The left image zooms in and out of the fabric, which appears in sixty of the images; the right image does so with the vase, which Brady used in the other forty portraits. Data on such banal details is amusing, but surely Jones wants his viewers to recognize the standardization or automation already present in nineteenth-century portrait photography. The triptych is enthralling but vertiginous—literally recalling the dolly/zoom effect made famous in Hitchcock’s Vertigo—and, running more than three hours, In Mathew Brady’s Studio presumably outlasted the attention span of even the most patient viewer. Still, this work, clearly the anchor of the show, is one of the artist’s most significant to date.

Destabilization is central to Jones’s intense output on view—first, in the formal inventiveness that manages to aggravate vision if not the body in multiple ways, and second, in terms of content: At Kordansky, all three movies (a word which still seems operative here) depicted either war or its immediate aftermath. Located in a smaller gallery, two series of digitally collaged prints referenced the tumultuous and short-lived 1871 Paris Commune. Consistently drawn to the archive, Jones chooses subject matter that immediately signals “history,” and often a violent one, but it’s hardly a stretch to read his collection of images allegorically—that is, as a mirror reflection of an agitated present.

Michael Ned Holte