Los Angeles

Jack Goldstein, Under Water Sea Fantasy, 1983–2003, 16 mm, color, sound, 6 minutes 30 seconds.

Jack Goldstein, Under Water Sea Fantasy, 1983–2003, 16 mm, color, sound, 6 minutes 30 seconds.

Jack Goldstein

Jack Goldstein (1945–2003) is one of those artists who is always ripe for reappraisal. As the times change around his work, the work itself also changes, though not in a way that suggests either foresight or myopia on Goldstein’s part. This work does not predict the future, nor does it obsolesce in the future’s wake; rather, it maintains its composure even as it is profoundly impacted by every new context it occupies. This was certainly the case in a modest but encapsulating exhibition mounted this summer at 1301PE, which featured a projection of Goldstein’s 16-mm film Under Water Sea Fantasy, and a selection of black-and-white photographs taken by James Welling in the Santa Monica, California, building where both artists once rented spaces. Under Water Sea Fantasy was begun in 1983 and completed just prior to Goldstein’s suicide at fifty-seven. By contrast, Welling’s pictures, all dating to 1977, circle a point of origin in Goldstein’s studio. A significant time span—a whole career—lies compressed between these bookends.

Under Water Sea Fantasy was screened in the second-floor gallery. To view it, one had to be accompanied upstairs by a gallery attendant, who turned on the projector and then returned to rewind the film once its six-and-a-half-minute running time had elapsed. This work could be described as a triptych, with each section comprising National Geographic-style footage depicting one type of natural phenomenon, spliced together by the artist. The first segment pertains to volcanic activity and the last to lunar eclipses. Only the middle portion was filmed underwater, and it unfolds with a sequential logic that proceeds from tiny fish to massive ones. The triptych is a format that reappears regularly within Goldstein’s oeuvre, and it seems to carry religious implications. Here, it is employed to tell a story about creation that ends questionably, if not apocalyptically, but the technical aspects are just as significant as this symbolic reading. The coloration of the first two sections is hypersaturated, transitioning from deep lava red to marine blue, whereas in the last we are returned to white light, and then finally, as the glowing moon is swallowed by cosmic darkness, to film in its unexposed, “pure” state. On the soundtrack, a sustained high-pitched tone that sounds like an electronically generated sine wave closes the film, arriving as an aural antithesis to the deep-earth bass rumblings heard at the start. The underwater middle section is delivered in silence; this pause is nevertheless punctured by the suddenly audible workings of the cinematic apparatus. These structuralist incursions, intertwined with the spectacular content, amount to a whole other form of revelation.

Installed downstairs, those ’70s photographs brought us back to the time when Goldstein, like Welling, was “emerging”—the two of them freshly released from graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and establishing their art-world presence. Goldstein was slightly ahead of the curve, as Welling would later admit. A sense of perplexed fascination was evident in Welling’s near-forensic scanning of the sparse studio in search of clues to his friend’s inspiration. In a shot of a wall covered with newspaper and magazine clippings, one could clearly make out an astronaut, a deep-sea diver, and various sorts of natural and cultural disasters. Goldstein’s entire lexicon, one gathered, was in place from the outset. Every image on the wall attested to the extension of the eye into realms from which it was once barred, and also to the conversion of human observers into prostheses of technical optics.

The world of Under Water Sea Fantasy is entirely a product of this reciprocal man/machine probing. Goldstein was an emblematic practitioner of the technological sublime, lauded in his day for his high standards of production. Yet what stand out now are the clattering projector, the flickering light, the diminutive frame, and the grainy image. Certainly, this film speaks to our submersion in media; one could argue that this is a condition Goldstein welcomed. Now that our submersion is more or less a fait accompli, however, the pleasures afforded by this work are more those of the fish out of water, reacclimatizing to the desert of the real every time the screen goes black.