Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Karen Yasinsky at Mireille Mosler, Alex McQuilkin at Marvelli, Isaac Julien at Metro Pictures

Mireille Mosler until November 17
35 East 67th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, 212 249 4195

Marvelli until November 24
526 West 26th Street Second Floor between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 627 3363

ISAAC JULIEN: “Western Union: Small Boats”
Metro Pictures until November 17
519 West 24th Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 206 7100

Karen Yasinsky Le Matin 2007  drawing animation on 16 mm film with 2,000 drawings, 4-1/2 minutes, unique  Courtesy Mireille Mosler, Ltd
Karen Yasinsky, Le Matin 2007 drawing animation on 16 mm film with 2,000 drawings, 4-1/2 minutes, unique Courtesy Mireille Mosler, Ltd

What are the chances of two concurrent shows of emerging artists both being based directly on classic French movies?  About the same, you could say, as the rival magazines Art Forum and Art in America running the same artist on their cover – which happened in November for abstract painter Mary Heilman.

Karen Yasinksy is an animator whose practice grew out of drawing.  Eschewing new technologies that enable swiftly produced, fluent computer animation, she retains her distinctive line and touch through the arduous, labor intensive processes as drawing animation and stop-motion animation.  The artist Laurie Simmons, writing in a brochure that accompanied Ms. Yasinsky’s 2002 exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, described the way in her awkward and anatomically wayward figures that “their arms and legs twitch restlessly, and then suddenly stand up and twirl like jewelry-box ballerinas.”  She has an exquisite touch that offers a kind of girly aesthetic – cramped and cloying in equal measure – with edge.  Ms. Yasinsky shares with Ms. Simmons a feminist-informed admiration for the Surrealist puppeteer Hans Bellmer.

Her first exhibition at Mireille Mosler, “L’Atalante,” offers reworkings in drawing, collage, and animation of Jean Vigo’s 1934 movie of the same title. “La Nuit,” (2007) a six minute stop-motion video installation, uses puppets to depict an alienated, loveless first night of newly-weds on board the barge that gives the movie its name.  As if taking their cues from the titles, “Le Matin” (2007) an animation made from 2000 individually drawn frames, and screened on a vintage television set, is as light, whimsical and optimistic as its pendant is dark and uncomfortable.  This four-and-a-half minute video is based on the opening sequence of Vigo’s movie in which the happy couple leave the village church and walk through fields to their barge.  The drawing has a fey simplicity that recalls Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s illustrations for his own “Le Petit Prince” (1943).  Ms. Yasinsky interpolates whimsical, unscripted flourishes: an individual within the crowd of onlookers, for instance, stands apart from his fellows and transforms momentarily into a donkey; or bursts of psychedelic color emenate from Juliette, the heroine, as she encounters the barge that is to be her new home.

Alex McQuilkin, showing in the project room at Marvelli, bases her piece on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Joan of Arc” (1928).  The installation uses two-channel projection, allowing for images of Maria Falconetti burning at the stake, of crows flying ominously overhead, of the martyr’s head being shaved to be juxtaposed with color frames of the artist herself cutting her long hair and shaving her head.  While Dreyer’s silent movie is accompanied by stirring liturgical music, Ms. McQuilkin adds verbal commentary that borders on banality.  She opens with the statement that, although there are no photographs of her, Joan did exist, but concludes more interestingly with the observation that Joan was the only woman both canonized and burned at the stake by the Catholic church.

While the production values of this work moves Ms. McQuilkin’s video up a notch, in other respects it is of a piece with her earlier works, which include shorts of herself applying make up as impassively as possible while being sexually penetrated from behind; of her and a girlfriend enacting the death scene of Romeo and Juliet, to the soundtrack of Wagner’s Liedestod from Tristan und Isolde, both wearing her trademark plain T-shirt with lettering (in “Joan of Arc” her T says “OK,” enigmatically); and of her holding her breath under water nearly to the point of drowning.  Wrist cutting is also a persistent theme in her work.

Where Ms. Yasinsky (born 1965) accesses early girlhood through dolls and dinky illustration technique, Ms. McQuilkin (born 1980) seems dedicated to a perpetual state of teenage angst in her self-presentation and thematic explorations.  The specific identification of both with early cinema relates to a broader trend in feminist-influenced art, from the work of Cindy Sherman through — in recently seen exhibitions in New York –Georgina Starr reenacting Theda Bara silent movies (Tracy Williams) and Dawn Clements fusing drawings of her own living space with elaborately reconstructed movie stage sets (Pierogi).

Isaac Julien WESTERN UNION: Small Boats 2007  Installation view, Metro Pictures, November 2007
Isaac Julien, Western Union: Small Boats 2007 Installation view, Metro Pictures, November 2007

For a further cinematic reference in a contemporary video, consider Isaac Julien’s “Western Union: Small Boats” and its nod to Visconti. This rich, lyrical if problematic video installation is the final installment of a trilogy by the British artist exploring issues of migration.

It claims as its specific point of departure the tragedy of impoverished Africans risking the treacherous 100 mile crossing from West Africa to Sicily on small fishing boats, though it is dealt with in mythopoeic fashion.  In the first gallery the viewer is confronted by a screen hanging at a diagonal on both sides of which is projected a slowly panning shot of a picturesquely decripit vessel marooned on a Mediterranean shore.

In the next space, the crux of the exhibition, has a film playing on three screens arranged in the corner of the room.  This juxtaposes scenes of beautiful women – one black, one white – wandering around the Palazzo Gangi (familiar from Luchino Visconti’s classic movie, The Leopard), balletic enactments of death throes by drowning, shots of despondent Africans adrift at sea, and scenes in a poor African village.  Minor key African music provides a suitably somber, elegaic sound track.

Like much of his work, Mr. Julien’s film exudes profound feeling, an impeccable sense of timing, and a sumptuous palette.  Incidents segue with great finesse from screen to screen, with suggestive contrasts of scale, color and locale.  But ultimately, there is – for so harrowing a subject – perhaps a little too much craft.  The migrations have been dubbed the “Sicilian Holocaust.”  The use of all-too artfully choreographed dancers and tourist board-worthy locations seems dubious, although the intention of universalizing a current event, of making a timeless, classical memorial for these poor people, is laudable.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, November 1, 2007 under the heading “Double Dose of French Film” (Yasinky and McQuilkin) and November 16, “Tragic Love” (Julien)