New York

James Coleman, Working Arrangement—horoscopus, 2004–, eight-channel video installation, color and black-and-white, sound, 54 minutes. Photo: Cathy Carver.

James Coleman, Working Arrangement—horoscopus, 2004–, eight-channel video installation, color and black-and-white, sound, 54 minutes. Photo: Cathy Carver.

James Coleman

Marian Goodman Gallery | New York

James Coleman, Working Arrangement—horoscopus, 2004–, eight-channel video installation, color and black-and-white, sound, 54 minutes. Photo: Cathy Carver.

This multipartite show by the Irish artist James Coleman included two fairly new works (Untitled, 2011–15, and Still Life, 2013–16); a mini-retrospective of five works from 1970, the year of Coleman’s first exhibition; a loner work bridging the turn of this century (D 11, 1998–2002); and a work begun in 2004 and still in process (Working Arrangement—horoscopus). The show, then, was a kind of primer, running from early to present in Coleman’s career. And while all of these works were projected images, his signature medium, they involved quite different forms and methods, from 16-mm film (the group from 1970, originally shot in Super 8, all silent but all accompanied by the whir of the analog movie projector that screened them) to contemporary wall-scale video art (the untitled work, an LED video installation with a literally thumping sound track) to a large, motionless, and silent projected image (Still Life) to a small, apparently motionless image that turned out to be motionful if watched long and close enough (D 11) to a video installation that, ’70s style, made a deceptively messy show of its technical means while deploying more than homemade technical sophistication. If the show was planned as an introduction to Coleman’s art, it was planned well.

To focus on the show’s newer works, the untitled piece from 2011–15, was a video loop of a fairground carousel, its laughing riders flying by at speed, again and again, indefinitely. Given Coleman’s interests, I wonder whether this image of eternal rotation might echo the turning reels of the predigital film projector, which the video technology this work depends on has made obsolete—a fate perhaps signaled by the recurring beat on the sound track, which sets an ominous mood by moving unsettlingly in and out of phase with the rhythm of the spinning carousel wheel. In any case, the work offers a view of a carnivalesque entertainment frozen for posterity in a strangely obituary-like way. Still Life, meanwhile, is a wall-size image of a poppy against a black ground. At points that ground overtakes the poppy’s stems, so that a bud seems to float unattached. The work surely indexes the still-life tradition in painting, translating it to another medium, but pictures in that tradition are usually celebratory and lush; here the tall, skinny poppy—projected taller than you or me—seems etiolated and strange.

The piece I spent the most time with was Working Arrangement—horoscopus, which translates the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a scene of contemporary individuals interacting in a dilapidated warehouse-type space (actually a disused abattoir, a fitting analogy for Hades). Eurydice’s journey to the underworld and Orpheus’s ineffective pursuit of her are expressed through relationship speak—“Where did you go?” “It’s not important where I went”—conspicuously sprinkled with the vocabulary of vision: “Have you been seeing anyone?” “Look at the way you’re looking at me.” In such conversations, are the play’s actors talking in character? Talking actor to actor? Addressing the audience? The possibilities flip in and out and coexist.

An early art-world investigator of the button camera, Coleman filmed the work by pinning these tiny devices to the clothes of his eight actors, then letting them run. Since the director cannot control where the cameras point but can only edit what they produce, the method injects a certain randomness into filmmaking and also, since the cameras are attached to the actors and respond to their every move, an immediacy and an immersion, effects Coleman heightened by asking his actors to improvise their performances. The result is a video installation of eight abutting screens, which may operate separately, may join their images in various combinations, or may simply go dark. Text from the language of video making may also appear—dates and times, PSRUC 2, DVD 3, or, most meaningfully, LOSS. In revealing rather than hiding the art form’s technology, the video images echo the physical installation, in which cables snake across the floor and the sound batts on the walls are left bare. Whether despite these deconstructive devices or because of them, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice retains its painful power.

David Frankel