VIDEO ART: Do these words evoke a hermetically sealed, black-draped chamber of solitude, stimulus-starved but for the flicker of a projected image and some tinny accompanying audio? At LoBot, Thomas Callahan chucks out any semblance of this formula and creates an open carnival of Exploratorium-like stations utilizing crisply edited clips of (presumably) found video. Each work has the succinctness of a short story, presented more as a character than a narrative, much the way Nam June Paik combined video with sculpture. His evasion of the “big black box” belies the amount of construction that actually has taken place here, however.
There is surprising breadth among the five “stations” on display. Most seductive is a trapezoidal wooden frame with found fabric stretched taut to create a screen, the only piece employing projection. A branching, three-pronged inverted tepee sits directly across the room from it, hosting three small monitors. In the far corner sprawls a multi-hued, L-shaped tent that braces both the wall and the floor; adjacent to that rises a four-posted surveillance tower of sorts. A final piece uses no external structure. Each fabrication is integral and uses screens (one, two, or three) as pivot points. Each fabrication, unfortunately, is proportionally problematic; the flaws in execution, though not fatal, should be addressed to roundly review the very strong work of Thomas Callahan.
I can understand Callahan’s intentions to adhere to a “just enough” aesthetic: just enough video is clipped to convey a message. Logically then, just enough handiwork should bridge the onscreen elements to the constructed elements. Even though I see tremendous meaning in the structures and understand the positive recklessness he employs, in every case I find myself struggling with the distraction of his execution, and in the case of the tent, the intent. Angular wooden braces tacked in haphazardly with nails, along with ungainly sewn seams in the screen, are the main offenders. Polish is unnecessary, even undesirable in this case, but freedom from distraction is crucial to a clear communication of ideas. Now, a discerning eye (and I believe I have one or two) can intuit “abstract” from “sloppy”; I think the difference can be spotted using a noise:information analogy. Callahan’s attempts to walk the tricky tightrope of “just enough” show an abundance of noise…but also a profound abundance of information.
It’s the strength of that information, both onscreen and off, that so engages me and is ultimately the bellwether for what potential exists in his practice. The ideas in his work play tightly because of a sound consciousness of the dual planes of screen and lens, as well as movement in relationship to those planes. In spite of rarely (never?) touching a camera in the creation of this exhibition, Callahan intimately knows the limitations of the camera. Sometimes the chosen clip runs until the subject tracks off the screen. In others, the subject stands motionless. Or perhaps there’s no subject, as things constantly rush past the borders of the screen, making it more of a landscape. The trapezoidal projection piece fits this last description. The stretched-fabric frame is suspended with the narrow end diagonally down and away from the viewer—physically a truncated diagram of Renaissance perspective studies. The two alternating clips evoke sensations as perpendicular as their movements, and does so using an amazing visual economy: both clips are simple cloud studies. White wisps creep up the screen of black sky and toward the viewer and profess nothing but backlit campfire smoke. After less than a minute, the scene cuts to a sunroof view—a sort of meditation with movement. In it, a blue sky with brilliant white clouds rushes right to left, and then alternates back to the campfire. The choice of projection for this piece and the smart use of shape to cut a new composition from the film frame show a clear direction in his work.
There’s more coming and going in two space-themed works. Coming is a moon lander, whose blast-off prompts a confusing Happy trails! kind of emotion even as the craft is actually bounding toward Earth. The camera in this instance operates as a remote eye that disorients and displaces our actual location with a virtual one. Across the gallery the lander’s complement sits, a three-monitor piece depicting departure from Earth. A shuttle, thrice displayed identically, makes a sharp bid for space as it curves slightly to the screen’s right; I see the Challenger disaster in it every time. It may be my own morbidity, but the constructed three-way split appears to reinforce this.
Adjacent to the shuttles ride three cowboys, dead-set on the camera and approaching repeatedly from the distance, like Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This time, fortunately, the bumrush doesn’t end in bloodshed. It all occurs on a small monitor, less than 20”, as well as a larger, grainier one; they’re juxtaposed side-by-side on the ground. As the riders gallop toward the screen, they appear to grow larger, an effect reverberated by the odd monitor match. The difference in picture quality and size flesh out the two optical illusions of television and perspective.
The image of a lone, static palm tree, with time and date stamp, is easily the eeriest of Callahan’s work here. The monitor is placed high atop a kind of surveillance tower, where we might expect a camera, not a monitor, presenting a sly switcheroo: Who’s watching whom? Are we vigilant in watching the watchers? Political undertones bleed right through this piece. It looms. Why is this camera fixed on an innocuous dead space? It seems that now more than ever, we need to look everywhere, with human or glass lens, and then look again.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Thomas Callahan, California Dreamin, March 22 - April 26, 2008; lobot gallery, Earth Launch, video, audio, wood, cable, dimensions variable, photo courtesy of lobot gallery, Oakland. Thomas Callahan, California Dreamin, March 22 - April 26, 2008; lobot gallery, Earth Launch, video, audio, wood, cable, dimensions variable, photo courtesy of lobot gallery, Oakland.)