Elad Lassry and Alex Bag at the Whitney

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04/03/2009 1:00 PM |

Video art review by Matthew Hunger

The discussion of film versus video — of where and how they belong in the art world and of their often intertwined histories — continues in the latest work of Elad Lassry and Alex Bag, two artists with exhibitions currently on display at the Whitney. Where Bag uses video as a contemporary tool for critique, Lassry finds his niche by creating a dialogue with American Structuralist films of the 60s. Unfortunately, both rely on the strengths of previous movements and moments in their respective fields for relevancy.

Elad Lassry’s three films (Untitled [2008; pictured right], Untitled (Agon) [2007], and Zebra and Woman [2007]) all toy with the peculiarities of shapes and expectations, but are ultimately concerned with faces.

Like the Structuralist work of Stan Brakhage, Lassry illuminates the qualities of film as medium, or rather, film as canvas, particularly where Untitled (Agon) and Zebra and Woman are concerned. In the former, he frames two dancers in a way that makes their dance irrelevant, positioning the camera to highlight the shapes created by the man and woman. Knowing what the image is complicates the Structuralist aesthetic, but also feels too much like a filmmaking exercise. Similarly, the very slow pan highlighting the shapes of the zebra’s skin and the woman’s face in Zebra and Woman produces a similar juxtaposition between recognizing an image and finding new ways of looking at it. Both films are complicated by the subjects’ faces in differing ways. Where in Untitled (Agon) the faces of the dancers detract from the effect, drawing too much attention away from the image, in Zebra and Woman they make the image more powerful by positioning the faces at the end of the long pan as if to reaffirm the familiarity of the images.

Recreating illustrations of visual tricks from an old science book, Untitled continues Lassry’s juxtapositions of shapes and faces. Unlike the other two films — in which faces heighten or undermine the illusion — here it’s the other way around. Using an optical illusion of a house, Lassry positions people in sometimes unusual ways inside and around the "house." Moments when the models struggle to position themselves within the illusion are the most telling — whether they are candid or otherwise — in Lassry’s critique. This self-awareness of their relation to the image makes the work all the more relevant.

Meanwhile, what makes Alex Bag’s critique of television’s role as cultural fixture so unsuccessful is also what makes it potentially interesting. Bag’s twisted children’s television program — complete with ironic takes on the shows’ different character-actors — is meant to comment on the role of children’s television in our culture. Bag has firsthand experience in this field: her mother hosted one such show in the 70s, footage of which is incorporated into her daughter’s work. However, rather than draw on this personal connection, Bag goes through the motions of highlighting incongruities between what is literally happening on screen, what might be happening off-screen, and deeper real world parallels. This critique, however, is at best toothless and at worst overdone. The existential crises suffered by the sometimes chipper but mostly manic-depressive host, and the juxtaposition of child-appropriate content with adult subjects is familiar from works like Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles and the short-lived MTV show Sifl and Olly. Bag’s personal connection to this programming could have lent the weight of authenticity that similar works lack, if only she had been willing to go in this direction. Instead the viewer is left with tired commentary that is neither as shocking nor as funny as work that came before it.

Elad Lassry continues until April 19 and Alex Bag until April 12 at the Whtiney Museum.