Paul Sharits made his first film Wintercourse (1962) at age 19 while studying painting at the University of Denver. There he became a protégé of Stan Brakhage, 10 years older and already in the forefront of the international film avant-garde. The “beat era” was evolving into “counterculture,” and Sharits’ generation began inheriting the weight of three decades of experimental filmmaking, as well as emotional, social and intellectual frontiers opened by psychedelics, communal living, music and new media.
Sharits recognized his creative territory when he observed that in cinematic narrative, “fade” had an effect of “time forward.” A group of 1970s works examined film’s inherent structures and this quickly became his core subject matter. He focused the viewer’s attention on film’s convulsive revolt against its remaining 19th-century visual conventions. “Seeing” is a learned activity, and the artist felt an ethical as well as theoretical impulse to address our most fundamental connection to the world around us. At the time, similar concerns were taken up by painters, sculptors and “conceptual” artists, and Sharits’ “location” works preceded “installation” by a number of years.
Two films, 3rd Degree (1982) and Apparent Motion (1975), are currently on view at Greene Naftali, co-presented with Anthology Film Archives, together with a number of works on paper and two of the “Frozen Film Frames.”
3rd Degree is a powerful film. In a darkened gallery one encounters three whirring 16mm film projectors sitting on sculpture pedestals, each a specific distance from a wall on which three images of escalating size join to form a single projected image. The projectors, somewhat resembling guards or attendants, do not point toward the wall on which the film images appear, but face 90 degrees counterclockwise. There is no seating. Free to move about, the viewer might notice that on each pedestal is a pair of mirrors that transmit the image from the projector to the wall.
Beginning to attend to the projected imagery, the viewer, now a visitor, is aware of a woman’s face, a hand holding a lighted match, and the repeated phrase, “Look I won’t talk.” Suddenly, in the center of the left projected image, the film begins to bubble and then burn. The sequence is repeated in the center image, a re-photographed enlargement of the first, and repeated once again and even larger in the right hand projection. All of the loops are running at different speeds, often in opposing directions. The protagonist speaks over a “sound track” of the amplified film loops moving through projector sprockets, punctuated by the occasional hiss and rattle of a snake.
Through this abbreviated vocabulary, the filmmaker assaults the viewer with a sense of menace and of descent through light, time and sensory awareness. The film loops repeat relentlessly. There is nowhere the eye can rest, no narrative resolution. The orientation of the projectors to the wall image, the specific employment of mirrors, recreates on macro scale the set-up of a homemade optical projector. Neither the viewer nor the filmmaker can escape entrapment in cinematic reality. On each thought-provoking level, 3rd Degree is a masterpiece of minimalist noir.
Apparent Motion is less engaging and has difficulty justifying its 28-minute duration. The gel-colored image is of film frames enlarged many times so the microscopic grain of the emulsion is apparent. Some sequences are effective, but on the whole, Sharits’ reference to 1960s neo-pointillist painting gains little from the novelty effect of “movement,” which the gallery release informs us is caused by static in the optical projector’s enlarging process.
Many of the works on paper are interesting, especially those in which the artist attempts to record his emotional/mental state as in Tallahassee Cloud Cover Anxiety (1982). Others are studies or notes for film projects. In Untitled (1982), for example, we learn that 16mm film burns best if the emulsion side faces the projector bulb.
The “Frozen Film Frame” series lacks scale, and while notable as an artifact, is a minor series by a major artist.
Through Jan. 14, Greene Naftali, 508 W. 26th St., 212-463-7770, www.greenenaftaligallery.com.