BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 02 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

Paul Sharits

Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, USA

BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 02 JUN 09

Paul Sharits, Study 4: Shutter Interface (optimal arrangement), 1975, ink and coloured pencil on paper, 46x58 cm

If any film installation can be compared to an endlessly prolonged execution of cinematic illusion by firing squad, it’s Paul Sharits’ Shutter Interface (1975). In this hypnotic work – recently restored by Greene Naftali and Anthology Film Archives to its long-unseen, four-screen version – a quartet of 16mm projectors stand, figure-like, side by side on imposing pedestals facing a long wall. Four looped films of varying lengths are unspooled and respooled in jewel-like swathes of colour interspersed with single black frames, creating the flicker effect Sharits – who died in 1993 – was the first to explore in colour films. The images thrown onto the wall overlap at their edges, producing ghostly paler bands where hues mix within the wide polychrome rectangle, complicating patterns that emerge like waves, horizontal pulses or, more eerily, cards shuffled by invisible hands. When the black interstices disrupt the chromatic flood, the soundtracks emit high-frequency, cicada-like tones via speakers placed underneath the projected images, aurally mirroring the whirling shutters.

To best view an installation of Shutter Interface, you have to duck before the line of whirring machines and sit on the floor in front of them. Even when stationed between the projectors and the corresponding images, however, you get the sense of being a witness to a wrenching event, both a viscerally engaged and a detached observer. As Rosalind Krauss noted of another four-projector Sharits installation, Soundstrip/Filmstrip (1972), the panoramic field formed by the overlapping images echoes the Cinemascope format, but the glorious illusion typically associated with widescreen movies is continuously disrupted by the insistently sculptural projectors and bases. Instead of being enveloped, we are, as Krauss wrote, ‘at a tangent to the illusion, forcibly aware of the generative pair: projector/projected; aware, that is, of the mechanisms that are closer to the birth of the illusion.’ Sharits viewed such works as ‘locational’ installations, which he intended to be shown outside of the context of the cinema and saw as having ethical dimensions.

Also on view in the show were an array of drawings and studies, many of them intricate ‘scores’ for films Sharits made with coloured pencil or marker on graph paper – a method of composition that came naturally as he had studied music as a child, and one that reflected his preoccupation with bridging the boundaries between visual and aural modes of perception. Another group of sketches from the late 1970s depict detailed plans for an inverted ‘light-pyramid’ to be projected with a mirror-and-lens system onto Mayan and Aztec monuments, alongside vivid musings in which he imagines an ecstatic immolation in the ‘pursuit of light/art’.

In an article published in Film Culture during the same period, Sharits noted that he had moved away from ontological concerns toward a greater interest in ‘behavioral psychology and medical pathology’. This shift is evident in numerous marker drawings from the 1980s in which horizontal rows (loose or tightly filling the page) of garish, furiously jagged, electrocardiogram-like lines suggest an impending tsunami – a metronymic rhythm threatening to tip into engulfing chaos. In one variation, Spasmatic Pain I (Boulder Community Hospital) (1981), the frenzied lines break formation to become a whirlpool near the centre right of the drawing and are partially crossed out further down. These and other works evoke Sharits’s personal turmoil, including his bipolar disorder, but emphasizing such connections can detract from appreciating his many metaphorically rich explorations into the relationship between consciousness and perception.

Sharits’ ties to Fluxus were evident in the subversive humour animating a smattering of erotically charged ‘Flux-fashion drawings’ (c. 1990–3), energetic sketches of fanciful costumes, mainly for women, such as one depicting a ‘slut’ in a micro-mini and pubic hair bra; other designs incorporate ants, rotten fish or razor blades. These shade into puerile fantasy but are also compelling reminders of the intersection between carnality and aggression in even Sharits’ earlier, more controlled and transformative work. As P. Adams Sitney wrote in Visionary Film (1974) of a trio of Sharits’ inventive flicker films, ‘The metaphors of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G [1969] totalize the suicidal and sexual inserts of Ray Gun Virus [1966] and Piece Mandala/End War [1966] and represent the viewing experience as erotic violence.’

That aggression and erotic pulse also lend an elemental power to works like Shutter Interface, which he structured according to ‘a dynamic of oscillations and cycles’ similar to that found in nature. These days it’s not so strange to find a 16mm projector parked in a gallery, but Sharits’ work gains a particular dynamism in this ‘locational’ context, at a time when his idio-syncratic achievements are ripe for rediscovery. He went far beyond an analysis of the materials of cinema: in his multi-projector installations, the extermination of illusion also represents an anxious, equally extended rebirth.

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.