Still Life with Movement: James Nares at Paul Kasmin
James Nares: Portraits at Paul Kasmin Gallery
March 3 to April 23, 2016
293 Tenth Avenue (at 27th Street)
New York, 212 563 4474
“James Nares: Portraits,” currently at Paul Kasmin, offers one of the more intriguing efforts by a contemporary artist to affect the portrait genre, currently enjoying a popular revival. Though appearing at first glance to be still photos, these portraits are actually shot with a special video camera that can record in excess of 300 frames per second, many more times a camera’s normal rate. Each portrait in the exhibition amounts to an extremely slow-motion video displayed on HD screens with their respective subjects posed mostly in conventional head-and-shoulders format. The result is that a viewer can track a subject’s movements as methodically as one can follow a snail on a branch. In acquiescing to this weirdly protracted form of observation, the effect is mesmerizing — just as mesmerizing as it was in Bill Viola’s “Quintet” videos 15 years ago.
The glacially slow movement of each subject certainly holds one’s attention, and to put this to use, Nares had each sitter accentuate a specific movement. Titled with the subject’s first name only, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Jim (2015) offers a turn of the head, while film critic Amy Taubin, in Amy (2015), augments a similar gesture with a smile that replaces a grave stare. These examples are mere fragments, as some of the videos last up to 20 minutes. Art critic and curator Douglas Crimp, posing for Douglas (2015), clasps his hands together just under his chin, sometimes interlacing his long fingers in a series of gestures that resembles the sort of unconscious movement a portrait subject is likely to indulge in when an appropriate gesture escapes them.
Others display more calculated gestures, like Jahanara (2016), in which a young woman in South Asian dress performs dance-like motions with her arms gently ascending and descending. More than the other pieces in the show, her gestures seem calculated to complement the camera’s artifice. And this is where the work’s more contradictory aspect becomes apparent. Though charming, her attempt to cooperate with the artist’s intentions manages to put even greater emphasis on the camera’s unusual interpretive bias, coldly thwarting her effort to create something personal.
Jahanara is a portrait of one of Nares’s three daughters participating in the series. The remaining subjects are all well-known art world figures and friends of the artist, suggesting Nares wished to lend his project the standing of celebrity along with a note of personal and emotional involvement. Visual aspects are ordinary. The lighting of many is stark but not exaggeratedly so — softly diffused and aimed generally toward the front. Whatever contrast it creates naturally changes as the subject turns from left to right, or right to left. Backgrounds tend to be dark. A deep charcoal blue for instance does the job of offsetting the platinum shock of Jim Jarmusch’s hair.
A temporal medium like video applied to a still-image genre like portraiture brings the viewer into an unsettling space where neither a feeling for cinema nor any sensitivity toward still images are much help in coming to terms with what they are experiencing, mostly because as a hybrid their individual characteristics cancel each other out. To watch Amy morph from a frown to a smile holds our attention to the tiny muscle changes that create her expression. But in doing so, the expression itself becomes secondary — it feels bypassed. What can be appreciated of her humanity is undercut by the camera’s mechanism.
As social animals we are super sensitive to, yet almost entirely unaware of, how we read facial nuance. I challenge any parent to actually describe the physical subtleties that reveal their child is telling a fib, though their ability to read them is usually unquestionable. In watching Amy’s face dissected into many small moments, one is witness to the mundane mechanics of what makes a smile, the muscle contractions splayed out in laboratory fashion. It’s worth noting that the camera — a Fastec Troubleshooter — was designed as a scientific instrument.
There is a mildly absorbing yet ultimately alienating strangeness in these videos. The ambiguity Nares produces — hardly an unwanted aspect of an art work — is reflective of how he places the viewer in a conceptual no-man’s-land between the time the subject expended posing and the duration of the video one sees in the gallery. One ends up hovering between methods of seeing, alternating between intimacy and voyeurism.
Voyeurism has deep roots in Western art, extending from Johannes Vermeer to Andy Warhol; the latter’s screen tests of the late 1960s are characterized as influential by the artist in an essay by Max Lakin in last month’s Vanity Fair, which coincided with the show’s opening. The Warhol reference seems an odd choice, since Nares’s ostensible approach to his subjects is the opposite of Warhol’s cold-blooded gawking. Nares clearly seems interested in creating genuine engagement with his subjects. And yet this clichéd use of slow motion actually pushes a viewer away from the subject and repositions them behind the artist, who is behind the camera, which functions according to the methodically relentless purpose for which it was designed.
If I were to seek the missing link to the connection Nares claims between himself and Warhol, I’d look to Richard Avedon’s deer-in-the-headlights celebrity portrait work of the last century. Though Avedon is a still photographer, he makes for a better precursor to an artist working in the portrait mode. In Avedon, as in Nares and Warhol, the blending of celebrity (real or imagined) confrontation and the supremacy of the lens renders the camera’s intrusion inevitable. If I am to accept the context of portraiture that Nares insists upon, I cannot ignore the fact that the only real video content is the plain evidence, in each portrait, of time passing, the banality of which is overcome by the fantastic properties of the super slow aspect — not what I can grasp of the subject’s humanity. For all their close-up beauty and dream-like dawdling, as portraits they are more weighed down than lifted by the camera’s obstinate scan.