Girls on film

I missed the New Year’s Day opening reception for the “All Ladies Video Review” at UTSA Satellite Space, but after I spent time with this deep, disquieting show, I suspect that was likely for the best. For one thing, the level and type of ambient noise in the gallery, as well as the subject matter of the show, tends to disorient; it woulda been hard to chitchat over the now ominous, now melancholic sound of footsteps which emanate from Michele Monseau’s two-channel digital video projection, “Isabel”, or to converse at all after watching Guillermina Zabala’s terrifying three-channel installation, “State of Disunion.” It’s sort of funny to think about what the opening might’ve been like (signalling to friend from under wall-mounted headphones: “Hey, I’ll come talk to you after I listen to this first-person narrative of immigrant sexual exploitation.”). I’m kidding, here, but my point is: the “All Ladies Video Review” occupies an ambiguous space between a “wall experience” and a “screen experience”, between the public, collectively-gazed-at artifacts of gallery culture and the intimate, baldly voyeuristic one-on-one revelations of TV.

This ambiguity is heightened by the fact that very disparate pieces from very different artists all hang together, which sometimes works to tremendous effect, while other pairings seem at violent odds. Upon entering the gallery, for example, your eye is seduced by a large-scale animation installation exploding from the the wall directly opposite the entranceway, Joey Fauerso’s “Ian (Be Still).” It features a motionless, eerily romantic central figure of a shirtless young boy backgrounded by a nonstop, whirling, kaleidoscopic rush of of lush, amply-colored, hand-drawn images. These flowers, leaves, and birds arrest and mesmerize, like a trippy screen saver concocted directly from a preternaturally talented 13-year-old-girl’s subconscious.

Before you “get there,” architecturally speaking, however, you pass Anne Wallace’s “El Otro Lado,” which hangs on the wall to your left. There, a flat-screen TV projects a video loop of sections of Border Wall as they whoosh by, rolling on and on in quiet despair of subdued palette and angry graffiti. If one stops and engages — i.e., listens through a pair of attached headphones — one hears a series of unseen interviewees describing aspects of the ongoing frontera drama and its attendant political positions. It’s a strong, thoughtful, and timely document. As you listen to the interviews, however, your peripheral gaze is inescapably drawn from Wallace’s relatively static Wall shots to Fauerso’s fantastical animation, making for a bit of cognitive dissonance. I wondered if this was intentional.

It very well could be intentional, see. The show’s curators — Satellite Space gallery coordinator and artist Cornelia White Swann and Leslie Raymond, half of art-partnership Potter-Belmar Labs and the architect of the new media-arts program at UTSA — are savvy, accomplished curatorial talents. Also, Swann’s informative, context-setting essay in the front of the catalog draws a historical timeline between the explosion of the feminist video art scene in NYC in the 1970s and the similar diversity of the uncommonly strong South Texas scene represented in “All Ladies Video Review.” White quotes New York Women’s Video Festival founder Steina Vasulka insisting that “Drawing attention to work by women in a specialized forum brings it more directly into the public eye.”

So the curatorial decision to seemingly pit Wallace’s gritty eye-level testimony “against” Fauerso’s operatic explosion seems, upon reflection, to highlight a key point: that women are currently making important work that in many cases could simply not be more radically different, and that both women and video encompass a thriving plethora of technique, subject, and gaze.

Karen Mahaffy’s joyous cosmic porthole, “Untitled (look up),” for example, is about pleasure and meditation: a projection of a round cell of sky, viewable directly through some sort of architectural skylight of concentric concrete circles (in a parking garage, maybe?), as time, clouds, birds drift by. Simple at first glance, but artfully edited, it wonders where Wallace critiques and Fauerso dazzles.

Meanwhile, on the adjoining wall, the camera in Michele Monseau’s “Isabel (Untited)” slowly leads our gaze up and down the monumental stone wall of a bank building on Mexico City’s Isabel street. Unfortunately, only one of the piece’s two channels was operating on a recent Sunday afternoon; a supine woman, facing away from the searching camera, seems to sleep at the base of ornately carved cornerstone of the rococo structure as footsteps resound, as though our very eyeballs were “walking” up and down the wall. According to an image in the catalog, the “partner” channel features a reclining male figure. In any case, the seeming vulnerability of the sleeping woman in contrast to the massive solidity of the building provided fruitful food for thought, especially juxtaposed in close quarters with Mahaffy’s eye-to-the-sky.

Unfortunately, Julia Barbosa Landois’ 3:23-minute video performance “Window Dressing,” hung opposite the Mahaffy-Monseu dyad, offers little in the way of scale or swoop to immediately arrest the viewer. Had I come across this singularly charming bit of video online or even on TV, I would’ve more thoroughly enjoyed its body-conscious vaudeville, in which a woman deliberately applies first aid to her feet stigmata (one of her visible hands bears a wrist Band-Aid as well). The piece’s intimacy, in the audiovisual shadow of the two more imposing pieces, loses something of interest.

A more felicitous (or, rather, powerful) arrangement was to place Anne Wallace’s “Dream” video and Guillermina Zabala’s “State of Disunion” each in its own private viewing chapel, as it were. Zabala’s film “stars” nearly nude Japanese Botoh-inspired dancers variously enacting some truly spellbinding political agitprop: in one piece, a pair of them, their faces kohl-black, evince frightening, infantile creatures mewling and rolling their eyes in tandem with (or in response to?) a fractured audio recording of a W. State of the Union speech; in another, a trio of chalk-bodied performers writhes, then huddles pantingly together under the perceptible influence of Homeland Security’s oppressive surveillance; and in a third, the audio recording hints at secret arrests while a suffering male figure is seemingly crushed into the ground by two female tormentors, recalling, uncomfortably, a collective memory of Abu Ghraib. Subtle it isn’t, but the visceral ritualism of the very effective choreography allows for far more shades of amiguity and pathos than does this verbal description.

I went into the final chapter of the show, a viewing room for Anne Wallace’s five-minute video “Dream,” in a state of nervy agitation, and came out both soothed and saddened. It’s a harmonious and ambivalent visual conflation of home-video-esque shots of a family house, overlaid with the glowing blue paradise of scuba footage. A woman seems to swim back through childhood memory, until the whoosh-bubble sound of underwater breath finally yields to an alarm clock’s insistent beep. “Dream” manages to convey a personal and a universal journey, one in which our unconscious is as vast as the sea, yet as personal as home, and is both omnipresent and just beyond our reach. •


All Ladies Video Review
Noon-6pm Fri-Sun, and by appointment
Through Jan 25
UTSA Satellite Space
(210) 212-7146

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