Arts Chipping away at the veneer

Artist John Pilson imagines the rich emotional lives of corporate drones and buildings

Artists have pictured themselves in ambivalent contrast, if not pitched battle, with the industrial and corporate world since long before poor George Banks had to relearn the pleasures of flying a kite from chimney sweep and performance artist Bert. Dark suits, gray concrete and steel, and function-over-form architecture are aesthetic defaults that represent values considered anathema to the creative life. But this view is also limited by the blinders of prejudice. Artist John Pilson, whose one-man show is on view in Artpace's Hudson (Show)Room through October 16, takes souls confined by acoustic paneling and half-windsors as the subject of much of his recent work and demonstrates that life is only as rich as our imagination.

2005's "Sports," a short video from John Pilson's Portraits in Manhattan series, is on view at Artpace along with recent video and photography by the artist, including "Dark Empire," which captured the 2003 New York City blackout, and the critically acclaimed "St. Denis."

"St. Denis," a 14-minute, single-channel video, develops this idea in a 150-year-old New York building with an impressive pedigree: Alexander Graham Bell debuted his telephone in the "gentlemen's parlor," and, more apt for Pilson, Marcel Duchamp constructed his final artwork, "Etant Donnés," in secret in the former hotel. Now installed permanently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the work, also known as "Given: 1 Waterfall, 2 Illuminating Gas," is a lifesize diorama hidden behind a large wooden door that is activated when the viewer steps on a doormat. Peering through a peephole, you can see only part of the scene, which includes a nude female torso prone on a bed of twigs; her face is hidden, and no amount of neck-twisting will let you complete the pregnant narrative with anything but your own baggage.

Pilson likewise gives us clues to the lives of the building's occupants as his camera traces hallways, once grand, now lacquered in industrial greens and browns. The building itself is so suggestive of secret histories, that the intermittent performances - a woman playing an accordion in the restroom, a therapy session with a self-empowerment guru - don't add much, in part because they feel too artificial.

John Pilson:
video and photography

Noon-5pm Wed-Sun,
noon-8pm Thu
Through Oct 16

445 N. Main

In contrast, the characters that populate Pilson's 2001 two-channel video, "Above the Grid," are pitch perfect. A pair of silver-haired, suited gentlemen break into doo-wop in the elevator and men's room - as "St. Denis'" accordion-player suggests, architectural demilitarized zones in which the normal rules of behavior may be relaxed - of an anonymous office building. The other star of this piece is a vibrant red plant whose roots, visible in their glass container, are more shocking in this sterile setting than the singing or the colorful balls that materialize out of nowhere. The left channel concludes with the businessmen emerging slo-mo into the bright, fuzzy light of the ground floor. The scene not only inverts our concept of heaven and attainment, it also encourages the viewer to ask grand existential questions: Why does a species so full of music, invention, and play create drab workspaces that blunt individual traits? Does our unconsciously created ratio of whimsy to stricture reflect a biological imperative for survival?

Critics have argued that "Etant Donnés" defies the age of mechanical reproduction because its does not admit experience except by the human eye. Pilson's work also confronts the limits of digital representation by using one medium to thwart another. The short video vignette in the Portraits in Manhattan series, in which the musical menschen return to debate ethics in baseball, belies our desire to create a complete character or story from a snapshot. By extending the moment of capture, Pilson reminds us that what may seem like an objective record has been staged by the camera's eye, with or without the subject's complicity but always with our internal narrative as the accomplice. But his commentary isn't a warning: In other works, Pilson focuses on the glittering mica in gritty sidewalks and posits impromptu office handball games, suggesting we need to project more, not less.

By Elaine Wolff


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