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Radical Remakes 

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Jennifer and Kevin McCoy: Every Shot, Every Episode

at the Renaissance Society, through December 22

Helen Mirra: Arrow

at Donald Young, through January 31

Jason Salavon: Crossbred and Crystalline

at Peter Miller, through December 31

Remakes are routine in the film industry--Cape Fear, Diabolique, The Fly, Psycho, Sabrina, Solaris, to name a few recent ones. But artists Kevin and Jennifer McCoy, Helen Mirra, and Jason Salavon take this Hollywood habit to extremes. Using blockbusters and broadcasts as raw material, these four artists remake imagery into unrecognizable new works. Pixels become pigment as Salavon inflicts his custom-made software on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Mirra vandalizes D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance to obtain a handful of split-second shots. And husband and wife Kevin and Jennifer McCoy dismember 20 episodes of Starsky and Hutch, redistributing the shots on 278 video CDs.

These artists are not baiting copyright lawyers. Instead they search for escape from the everyday onrush of images, which they sample and radically denature. At their best, they refract something sublime from them. The result is a chance to re-enchant the vast wasteland of TV and the megaplex. Here conceptual art meets high concept, a Hollywood coinage for films that can be synopsized in a single sentence--although an incomplete one will do--for the convenience of investors, publicists, and consumers. There's nothing highbrow about high concept, but conceptual art can be off-putting, the antithesis of high concept.

Consider the work of Mark Lombardi, who had a show here at the Bona Fide Gallery in 2000: he puts his research on corrupt corporate links on the wall in detailed diagrammatic drawings, such as George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens (1999), which maps the relationships of various bankers and oil dealers over a period of more than ten years. In other conceptual works, it's not the research that's on the wall (or in a curator's essay) but the technical route the artist took to create the work--what might be called its back story in the lingo of the high concept crowd. The pieces in these current exhibits depend on the contrast between what you see on the wall and what you know about how it got there. The question is whether the stories behind these artworks remaking Hollywood and TV are more compelling than the works themselves.

In Every Shot, Every Episode (part of the Renaissance Society's "Watery, Domestic" show), the McCoys hang on the wall an open suitcase containing a video-disc player, LCD screen, and pair of speakers. Two shelves nearby hold 278 video discs available for the viewer to play. A small ledge displays the case for the video disc playing at the time, just as a record store will show customers what CD they're hearing. Each disc contains a compilation of clips from the series Starsky and Hutch: the McCoys classified some 10,000 shots they selected from the show's April 1975 pilot and 19 later episodes, aired between September 1975 and February 1977. Like archaeologists, they sorted their fragments into 278 categories and burned CDs for each one, giving them such labels as "Every Gun," "Every Car Chase," "Every Multiple Camera Move," "Every Moan of Pain," "Every Evil Laugh," "Every 70's Comment," "Every Explanation," "Every Exclamation," and "Every Stereotype."

This obsessive breakdown yields an idiosyncratic catalog of industrial-grade TV. Reading the index of video discs is a revelation in itself. None of the discs makes any sense as a story, but Every Shot, Every Episode as a whole suggests that the original narratives may have been almost as arbitrary. In theory, an act of deconstruction uncovers previously unseen forces at work. But Every Shot, Every Episode never aspires to investigate the 70s zeitgeist (the McCoys did a similar number on the late-70s sitcom Eight is Enough in their 448 Is Enough). More diverting than deconstructive, the piece does comment on the inanity of rerun fans and amateur empiricists who fetishize trivial data. The best story here may be the one Kevin McCoy tells on his Web site, about a baby-sitter he had in the pre-VCR era who watched Starsky and Hutch religiously and narrated scene-by-scene commentary into her tape recorder in order to savor "replays."

Mirra also samples vintage fare in her video installation Arrow at Donald Young Gallery. D.W. Griffith originally wanted to screen his epic Intolerance, set in four eras, in an eight-hour version but ended up cutting it to three and a half hours. Mirra's Arrow runs just 27 minutes--and for most of that time the viewer sits in complete darkness waiting for the 67 split-second clips she selected from Griffith's green-and-blue-tinted silent footage to be projected on a screen. Mirra says she calibrated her "flashes of light" to match the "average number of lightning strikes in a thunderstorm." The only surviving trace of narrative coherence is the recurrence of Constance Talmadge, playing the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian era. We can see--barely--struggling figures in a bazaar, an archer, and a chariot race. The flashes increase in frequency toward the end, perhaps a nod to what was once called a "Griffith ending" after that director's knack for intercutting and thus accelerating story lines at the climax. Although Griffith premiered Intolerance in New York City with a chorus of 75 and an orchestra of 40, Mirra scores Arrow with a sonorous drone of herself on electric guitar and bass to suggest lightning and thunder respectively.

Mirra reduces Griffith's original masterpiece to a rather thin sensory experience. Sitting in the nearly lighttight space, I found more drama in a staff person opening the bathroom door than I did in Mirra's fleeting projections: suddenly a chiaroscuro bolt of light ruptured the installation.

What I assume to be Arrow's concept is more rewarding. When Griffith's Birth of a Nation was shown at the White House on February 18, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson supposedly said, "It's like writing history with lightning." Although film historians never confirmed the quote, it apparently informs Mirra's piece, as does poet and film critic Vachel Lindsay's comment that Griffith was forging "art by lightning flash." Mirra's riff on Griffith's "lightning" is far more instructive than the gallery's obscure blurb, which cites her "preoccupation with the prioritization of the Secondary."

Of all these conceptualist remakers, Jason Salavon takes his source material the farthest from its original form--and does the most with it. The back story to his art may be written in his software code, but what ends up on the gallery wall is both good to look at and good to think about. To make his series of ten digital color photographs, MTV's 10 Greatest Music Videos of All Time, he took each frame of each video and averaged all its colors, pixel by pixel, into a monochromatic quarter-inch square. Then he arrayed all the tiny squares from each video in chronological order in rows. The video ranked third by MTV's poll, Smells Like Teen Spirit, translates into a grid of mostly butterscotch-hued squares.

Vogue ranks second, but Salavon's treatment of this black-and-white 1990 Madonna video is number one on my chart. A rhythmic quilt of gray, white, and black elements, it evokes Peter Kubelka's abstract portrait Arnulf Rainer (1960), a six-minute, 24-second film he made by splicing together 35-millimeter film frames, either black or transparent, accompanied by a music score. Besides screening the film, Kubelka displayed all 4,896 frames in strips of celluloid on a white wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The resulting grid, like Salavon's version of Vogue, makes a compelling pattern. In some ways Salavon's synopses are the ultimate in high concept: a digest of all the colors and shots can be taken in at a glance by the go-go viewer with no time to watch an entire music video.

Salavon imposes a similar leveling device on a DVD of the first episode of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in his video installation Everything, All at Once (Part II). Here his program averages each frame's color and flattens the frame into a single horizontal scan line projected on a white wall. One on top of another the lines scroll downward from the ceiling to the floor in a cascade. The software acts like the shuttle on a loom, sorting and weaving subtly shifting color fields. Salavon has placed a small television monitor outside the space so you can compare the normal signal from the DVD with his remake. But clearly he's singlemindedly oblivious to the intent of pop-culture artists, divining a less obvious beauty in their output.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Jason Salavon and Peter Miller Gallery.

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