TBA:13: Waiting for Isenstein

At the Cooley Gallery: Absence in the form of entertainment

It makes sense that Jamie Isenstein’s “Will Return” at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery is part of PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival. It’s right there in the title of the exhibit, a time marked by absence and anticipation. The most ephemeral of the ephemeral, Limbo, waiting in our theater seats or the remembering as we get up to leave after the applause has died. There is also an element of performance in this exhibit: Something has happened/might happen/happen again. Not a bad concept to center an exhibition upon, especially at one’s alma mater.

I mean, I get it, but I wish I didn’t quite so readily. The show presents a long-standing consideration of what it means to entertain and be entertained, and in that this exhibition has been curated as a survey show, it might also by default represent what happens when a student shows promise, someone sees that potential, accountability and investment to follow.

Magic Fingers/Andrew Kreps Gallery

Magic Fingers/Andrew Kreps Gallery

So, I put myself into a time frame, consider what in the show is early work, and I am prepared to ease up a bit. Yes, “Magic Fingers” (2003) has an appeal, making the frame a small stage for the artist’s disembodied hand (The Addam’s Family’s Thing), or in her absence, a hanging sign that gives us the title of the exhibit. Yet, other pieces like “Inside Out Headshots (Skeleton and Lotion),” which was made the following year, or “Eyehole,” done the year after that, are as straightforward and humorous as one-liner jokes that could be dropped from the set.

And please forgive me, but this latitude I have given myself in making such judgements lead to other considerations regarding the editing of the exhibit, and even within individual works. Removing a good 50 percent of the work would have made for a tighter, less-is-more installation and given more poignancy to the thesis. I may take further liberties in regards to three watercolor pieces showing a side view of clown shoes (all 2013). One was done on a single sheet of paper; another was a diptych, cutting the shoe into two parts; and, finally a triptych divided a shoe in three pieces. Accordingly, each shoe is longer than the previous. I wonder if the three frames that make up the triptych might be sold individually, and from here wonder if the piece might be a better representation of the overall theme —if not a better sight gag— if it was missing the toe portion of the triptych.

Absence and/or the desire for absence can be both good and/or bad. It doesn’t hurt to be less direct, especially when your subject matter is displacement, loss and, by association, an attending desire. Keep ‘em wanting more, guessing instead of having it spelled out.

Or, find a way to subvert expectations: The dual channel video “Acéphal Magical” (2007) begins to approach this strategy. The right channel shows a musician playing a musical saw. He or she is dressed in a tuxedo but an over-sized top hat comes down over the face and becomes the head. The mystery is reinforced with invention in the left channel where a table fan blows a disembodied breath across the mouths of bottles to create a second part of the composition for saw and bottle. I could be lulled into sitting and waiting, and in effect go missing for hours listening to this haunting piece.

Or, find yet other ways to stay true to the overall concept. Two untitled watercolor and pencil on paper pieces (both 2013) are somewhat successful in achieving this purpose. Both are representations of the borders that framed the dialogue between scenes in silent movies. As such, they typically would elaborate on the silence, and here they go further by giving us nothing to “sound out” in our minds. Still, it is rather easy to be in on the joke.

Infinite Disco Soft-Shoe (video still)/Andrew Kreps Gallery

Infinite Disco Soft-Shoe (video still)/Andrew Kreps Gallery

Humor is pervasive throughout this exhibit, if not one-liners, then puns, and, in the case of “Infinite Disco Soft-shoe” (2002-2004), a bit of Vaudeville. Yet it is more slapstick than a send-up, at least as it is intended. The piece is situated on the floor of the foyer to the gallery and therefore open to the library at Reed. In order to maintain the peace and quiet for study, a pair of headphones are attached to the monitor. Without putting on the headphones, one can see that the dance is a duet with Death. But it was when I tried to put on the headphones the unintended brought unexpected life to this less than convincing laugh in the face of the ultimate absence. The cord for the headphones was tangled around the leg of a piece of furniture adjacent to the monitor, thereby making it impossible to view the video while simultaneously listening to the audio portion (a player-piano type version of the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive”). The viewer/listener has to do one or the other, which was kind of fun and somewhat poetic.

When I asked the attendant if this was intentional, she freed the cord, which made me a little sad. And in that I could not see how the cord could have possibly gotten so tangled, still preferring to imagine that the way it had been was the artist’s choice, and her absence now had unexpected consequences. (I’m also fairly certain the distinct smell of urine in the area was not intended, but again lent it’s own symbolic weight, especially for those who have been in attendance at a death.)

Finally, I wonder if in order to insure entertainment, a degree of capitulation must be made, meaning that the more obvious the pursuit, the greater the possibility of success. If so, it is certainly wrong-headed.

I’ll be here all week.

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