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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Paul Pfeiffer

Paul Pfeiffer
MC Gallery
December 2 -- February 17, 2007

Paul Pfeiffer’s images jolt a viewer and come forward as forceful breaks in the usually seamless and fluid medium of video. Take his most famous video work, Fragment of a Crucifixion, After Francis Bacon, 1999. Former Charlotte Hornet’s player Larry Johnson, without basketball or recognizable team logos on his jersey, appears to enact some sort of primal groan or scream. The display bursts forth over and over, caught forever in Pfeiffer’s constant, revealing looping. This is not ordinary television.

Thus John Baldessari once described Pfeiffer’s work as an “offensive strike against the inherent passivity of video." Especially in the form of television, video is conducive to physical inactivity and mental stasis. Basketball games, for example, are recognizable and safe -- when the crowd pulses and cheers, we pulse and cheer. When the crowd stretches, we stretch. It is a mass moment, action by inertia -- commercial break, fridge, commercial for things in the fridge. As Pfeiffer himself has commented, “People are used to being told what to think about what they see.”

With this in mind, he tries to break through these signifiers by not allowing or erasing them. The crowd is expunged. The basketball goals have disappeared. The basketball game, usually desired to be viewed as large as possible all over the U.S. on increasingly bigger screens, is reduced to a couple of inches of projection on the wall. The basketball game as a whole, as a complete context for Johnson in the video, is not allowed. No narrative or events push one forward. There is no way to become bound up in the video. We are not allowed our cues, not given our indicators of what to do.

Pfeiffer, in his new exhibition at MC, presents more thwarted mass moments in the form of photographs and four video works. The overall effect of the show is a bit disjointed, at times very recognizable and ordinary and at other times fresh and evocative. Pfeiffer, however, expands his already intense critique of technological culture and how it gets bound up in older rituals we sometimes don’t know we are still inacting.

The photographs extend his Four Horseman of the Apocalypse series. Again, we have isolated figures in stadiums on basketball courts, but unlike the video work which has a creepy, spectral feel, the figures in the photographs take on sort of prophetic magnitude. With the crowd trained on them, they appear as figures with answers. The best photo work of the show is of a child, born aloft and focused upon by spectators and cameras. In reality, this must be the son of a star basketball player. In Pfeiffer’s world, the little boy’s presence is amped and exalted like a golden calf.

There is also a photograph of a man standing at a press table in the middle of an empty arena, his hand covering his face in expressionistic gesture. This man seems like discoursing minister, full of pomp and rhetoric, and what occurs here is quite interesting. Does Pfeiffer suggest that signifiers of video and spectacle inducing media cover up feelings in society that seem to be much like old fashion worship? Are basketball players and media figures our temporary gods, replaced each night by new symbols? There is pessimism at work here.

The crux of the show, however, is not the photographs. For as good as they are, we’ve seen this work before. The centerpiece instead is three mini-stadiums built out of plywood. Two have voyeur holes. One is completely closed.

The first stadium piece, Pfeiffer calls it Commander Robot 1, 2006, is completely closed with a surveillance camera inside, and the recording of the inside of the box is projected on the wall outside of the box. The projection is of the opening of a Queen concert, with Freddie Mercury and the boys erased. The opening replays over and over. We, like with the Johnson piece, are not allowed the event, only a piece of it to let us know what is happened, what our expectations are, what are desires appear to be. However, we cannot see the projector, we cannot see the recording in process. This adds a nice twist to his previous work. A viewer feels physically displaced from the concert.

The other two stadium works can be looked into. You bend over and view small interior screens through a small open doors, the oil from people’s foreheads already collecting above the tiny portals. Your eye shoots across the mini-floor to recordings of crowds, all shot in the Philippines, Pfeiffer native land. The crowds, for lack of a better term, are bored. They seem to be people in their mid to late twenties and they look completely unimpressed. Over and over, they produce a chant. Collectively, the chant is forceful and impressive. Individually, the chant seems to barely make it out of the person’s mouth. Again, the event enacts a ritual that appears to be something when projected or recorded and is revealed as something else, in this case a little moment inside a little stadium projected by people that want to be somewhere else.

Pfeiffer’s work seems tailor made for “society of the spectacle” and “image world” rhetoric. The work seems to counteract the trajectory of desire supposedly brought on by late capitalistic society if you believe in that sort of thing. Pheiffer does not give us bigger televisions, but small screens with more interaction. He does not offer spectacles that create featureless individuals but instead undercurrents technology that seems to induce such ideas. In many ways, his work owes a lot to Bruce Nauman or Nan June Paik, using the mechanical equipment of video to create a physical relationship. What is interesting about Pfeiffer, however, is that he notices that video merely covers much older and familiar human tendencies. This needs to be said, over and over, so we don’t forget it.

Image courtesy of MC Gallery, Photo Credit: Joshua White