Friday, October 1st, 2004

Jonas Mekas: “From Brooklyn, with Love” (with Martha Colburn and Auguste Varkalis)

Sideshow Gallery
319 Bedford Avenue
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211
718 486 8180

Jonas Mekas filmstills Courtesy Sideshow Gallery, details to follow
Jonas Mekas filmstills Courtesy Sideshow Gallery, details to follow

In his show “From Brooklyn With Love,” Jonas Mekas exhibits films and stills in which the world is recorded without innuendo or guile. As in all his work known to me, Mekas’ companions and surroundings reveal themselves as one assumes they were encountered – without indication of what might come next. There’s no narrative to his work, unless it be his life’s narrative, no hierarchy of events. There are no characters but those who chance before his camera. There is only sight – Mekas’ own and ours as long as we tally before Sideshow’s monitors.

Perhaps it is this uncanny ability to suspend judgement in favor of seeing that has allowed Mekas to support so many artists whose work differs from his own. He did so as editor of “Film Culture,” as a columnist at the Voice and as founder of Anthology Film. He continues this legacy at Sideshow by selecting two promising young film makers to exhibit with him: Martha Colburn and Auguste Varkalis. Both artists exhibit a-temporal work at sideshow alongside their films. Colburn shows two back-lit, computer-altered collages whose subject matter derives from her films. Varkalis shows boxed objects reminiscent of Cornell, as well as some of his illustrations from Mekas’ diary of dreams. As with Mekas, though, it is their films that impress most.

Colburn’s and Varkalis’ films both reveal the influence of Stan Brakhage, a pioneer of experimental film and yet another artist to benefit from Mekas’ support. This, however, is where their similarities end. Varkalis’ films evoke meditative calm while those of Colburn display an eye-opening corporeality.

The latter’s work is a rush of violent, sexual imagery – not repellant, but captivating. There is a necessity to her images; they seem cathartic with a frenzied quality derived from the artist’s drawing directly on the film as Brakhage did. In “Spiders in Love,” Colburn knits images of spiders with women’s faces and silhouetted phalluses. Bright colors clash with Colburn’s own discordant score. Still more savage and strange is “Skelkhelovision,” which begins with a cartoon skeleton making love to a woman, amidst hallucinogenic patterns. Similar images of coupling women and solitary nudes succeed one another. Over each Colburn scribbles her skeletons, their bones overlaying the women’s nude limbs. To my eyes, the whole equates death with sexuality in terms both ghastly and honest.

Varkalis’ films are less aggressive and more abstract than Colburn’s. They contain references to direct observation as in “The B Train” in which the periodicity of abstract flashes on a black screen mimics the lights flashing by the windows of a speeding subway car. Varkalis’ primary concern, however, seems to be the effects of various patterns and film speeds on the viewer’s nervous system. At times he seems just as willing to unnerve as to calm. He sets color against black and white, isolated form against undifferentiated fields. Unlike the intensely expressive Colburn, there is always a sense of balance in his films.

Both these artists provide definite counterpoints to Mekas’ own work in that they have visions, albeit divergent, that they seek to unfold in film. Visionary work seems to be just what Mekas avoids, pursuing instead the real, the seen-as-it-is. In Sideshows’s front room runs recently edited film footage of Williamsburg in the 50’s taken when Mekas first arrived there. The images are unprepossessing: children playing, men smoking, women chatting. It is impossible to resist the air of nostalgia they exude. Stills from the film flank the TV monitor. Next on the reel comes “Places I’ve Lived,” a set of images revisiting Mekas’ old homes one of which is a pile of rubble outside which the artist stands apparently forlorn.

In Sideshow’s rear room is one of Mekas long term projects: a film equal in length and quality to a day lived. On twelve monitors spaced round the room run Mekas’ intimate images of daily life, two hours to a monitor. Gradually, as one moves from monitor to monitor, one begins to feel at home. These anonymous faces and places were the stuff of Jonas Mekas’ most intimate life. Among them, unlike other documentary work of this nature, one does not feel oneself an intruder.

I would say that time is Mekas’ subject. Not time in the absolute sense of Warhol’s relentless films, but lived time as experienced by each of us each day. To record this, it seems, has been his lot and his goal.