Tony Tasset, Judy, 1998 35 mm 15 second film loop
Dimensions variable, installation view
Tony Tasset: Judy
Leo Koenig Inc. Projekte
541 W 23rd St., New York, NY 10011
May 12 through June 18, 2011
In the small Leo Koenig Inc. Projeckte space, a film projector sits atop of what appears to be the crate it was shipped in. It casts an image of a woman’s face on the far wall opposite from the entrance to the space, which has been covered with solid black tarps to shut out all daylight. A 15 second edit of 35mm film runs in a loop, and the woman has her gaze set into the camera. Light blond hair falls unto her shoulders, which are covered by a light blue t-shirt. She is framed by a bush of what appears to be powder-pink roses in a field of lush green foliage. A lone earring of some modest gem dangles from her exposed ear, the ear that holds back a lock of hair. She flashes a gentle smile, in a demure manner, which seems to come from some radiant joy that she just can’t keep in, although she seems to try for a moment. Light crow’s feet form in the outer corners of her eyes. She blinks. Our gaze slowly and steadily zooms onto her face through the camera. The smile fades from her mouth, she blinks a few times, and casts her face down into a pensive, inward gaze. The camera moves in closer, a lock of her hair gently blows across her chin, and the flowers around her head are dancing, steadily moving out of the frame. The sober, wistful look suddenly seems to take a darker turn into what appears to be grief. For just a moment, she looks so awfully sad. The camera is still moving in, flowers move out of the frame, and a wrinkle on her brow forms. She lifts her head, blinks, her brow is furrowed, and she casts her gaze, which appears to have grown cold, back into the camera. The corners of her mouth are slightly turned upward, a sort of smile, but not one that is inviting. Her mouth is twisted into a subtle grimace that seems to communicate a smoldering anger. The edit cuts and starts over again. The smile, which is back on her face, is not too far away from the grimace in its form, but the rest of her face is light and open again. Lovely pink flowers fill the edges of the frame. The smile fades, her face turns down, the lock of hair moves across her chin in the breeze, sadness and grief appear, and then give way to anger. She lifts her head with furrowed brow and grimace, she blinks, and the edit cuts back to her smiling, with the frame full of flowers. The scene loops and loops, repeating into a hypnotic spell. The slow and steady zoom correlating with the changing display of emotion across her face, produces an unsettling effect. It takes watching the edit loop a few times to work through some confusion and feel certain that it is the same footage repeating, and not subtly different shots edited together.
This is a beautiful woman. With the range of emotions playing and repeating across her face, she conveys a sense of knowingness, strength, and, for a loss of any other word, love. These complexities of emotion that show themselves on her face in this short clip are engaging and keep me transfixed. Something about her image, which is moving in the light projected onto the wall, is almost physical. Her lock of hair gently moves under her chin, the flowers around her head dance for a moment before leaving the frame, while it occurs to me the sound of the projector in this empty space is overwhelming. The clicking of the gears, and the sound of the cooling fan are loud and unrelenting. I look at the projector, which is matter-of-factly placed on what appears to be the crate it was shipped to the gallery in. The tenuous ribbon of film moves through the mechanism between the two reels. The still frames, 24 per second, are illuminated through light into her moving face on the wall. Her face in the projected image shows some wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, along her brow, and at the corners of her mouth. Like every one of us, this woman is aging. Vertical lines, which reveal aging of the physical strip of film, dance around nervously in the projected moving image on the wall. The powder-pink flowers blowing gently in the breeze behind her head are in full-bloom, most likely late in the summer. Autumn will come. Their petals will begin to fall a few at a time, then more rapidly. They will die, as will the woman whose complex and lovely face casts it gaze upon me through the film. And the film itself will disintegrate. Unlike the digital image, which seems to have the potential for eternal facsimile, the images generated by light passing though film have, like us, a certain temporal existence. Not only will the flowers die, not only will this woman, who is revealing such an intimate range of emotion die, but this moving image will die as well. As we all will. For just a moment, I feel I may be in love with her. With some more sober distance from this work, I come to my senses and realize it is actually the work I have fallen in love with, and the almost drunken melancholic realization that we will eventually be separated from all we love through death. This is the tragedy, which communicates through every frame of this film.
I don’t know this woman, but there is something familiar about her face, or rather the narrative of emotions that play out on it. Her face, with all of its ever so subtle nuanced series of gestures, takes up most of the shot, which is projected at approximately 8x10 feet. It is the intensely intimate, up and close view I have of her, that is conjuring familiarity. It is not this woman’s face I have seen before, but rather, a similar likeness of gestures when engaged in a brief moment of intimacy with the woman I love. The camera has penetrated the boundaries, which are usually let down for the one we are most intimate with. I learn this woman, Judy, whose name adorns the title of this exhibition, is the artist Judy Ledgerwood, and is also Tony Tasset’s wife. This information lends itself to the feeling that the emotion I am reading on her face is not scripted and directed- as it might be if she were an actor, but is documentation of a real event. It is just as likely that Tasset is documenting an actual moment of intimacy between his wife and himself, as it is something staged, or likely it is something in between.
This moment that has been documented is reminiscent of similar sweet and fleeting moments I have experienced that make themselves apparent in memory, with an arbitrary disregard for any type of logic. Unlike the random and fleeting nature of memory, this repetition expands its effect, while mimicking it. Along with the fact that the medium of film is deteriorating as Judy is, there is something about the medium of film that feels as though it is not so far removed from the real experience. In On Photography, Susan Sontag’s description of the photographic image as being, “not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a deathmask” (Sontag, p. 154), resonates here. That which is beautiful about this work is rendered uncanny through the medium. Unlike the digitized image, this image is produced by light passing through a physical object. An object in decay, which reveals its decay as its life plays out before us.
I am more familiar with Tasset’s other work, particularly his sculptures and photographs. I’ve always responded to his humor and wit, which he employs in trompe l'oeil sculptures such as Cherry Tree, 1999, Magnolias for Pittsburgh, 2006, his Smashed Pumpkin, 2008 or Rotting Pumpkin, 2006. These works were fabricated to scale as the real object and look deceptively like the actual object they each represent, particularly the Magnolias for Pittsburgh, 2006, which are two hand-painted bronze magnolia trees installed in a grove of actual magnolia trees. He conjures the sensibilities of a trickster in many of these objects, and at times, or at least one, he plays with blatant adolescent potty humor in his 1994 cibachrome photograph, I Peed In My Pants. This life-scaled photograph bears the likeness of Tasset, standing in a puddle of his own urine, wearing a pair of off-white khaki’s, which offer no possible concealment of the fact that yes, Mr. Tasset did, in fact, pee in his pants. He stands posed as the proud, heroic artist, with arms crossed over his chest and a deadpan look on his face, which seems to assert a certain confidence with this work he has produced. I entered this exhibition, featuring only this work Judy, expecting to be put on and to have a laugh. Instead, Tasset has managed to subvert my expectations yet again. This work, which as far as I can gather, is deeply personal; and unabashedly so. It is unapologetically vulnerable, sweet, tender, and sad. As much as I’ve been thoroughly amused with and responded to Tasset’s other work, this one gets me in a way that is completely unexpected. The film operates like some powerful and devastating love poem within the small space of a few succinctly placed lyrical lines.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973.
Chris Kasper is an artist/teacher/writer living in New York City.
He holds an MFA from the School of Art at Yale University and completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006.