This will be Coleman’s most extensive exhibition since his 2012 retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and will both present a survey of iconic earlier works and debut two major film installations that have occupied the artist over the past five years.
Since his first exhibition in 1970, Coleman’s pioneering practice has redefined our understanding and expectations of time-based work and has had an immeasurable influence on subsequent generations of artists. Coleman’s critique of the photographic image through meticulously composed slide, film and video projections questions our understanding of how an image accrues meaning and the viewer’s complicity in defining the experience of a work. Despite Coleman’s intensely conceptual approach, his works are characterised by a sensual beauty and economic elegance that results from his embrace of the photographic image’s inherent complexities, uncertainties and potential.
Still Life (2013-16), the first of the two new works in the exhibition, presents a large-scale projection of an uprooted poppy against a black background. The flower seems motionless at first, but over time, slight movements in the roots and petals reveal themselves. In the second new work, Untitled (2011-15), a loud, insistently repetitive and mechanical soundtrack is heard well before arriving at a monolithic wall of LED screens blazing a film of a spinning amusement park ride. The repetitive spinning, in blurred cuts, recalls a skipping record, which is in fact the source of the soundtrack. Of these two new works, Benjamin Buchloh has written:
‘In a dialectical constellation of extreme opposites, James Coleman's two new works, Still Life and Untitled, seem to contemplate the origins and the present currency, the alpha and the omega of representation. Still Life stages a singular, live poppy plant, whose merely microscopically perceptible biological life is traced in a larger than life size filmic projection, as though returning to one of the origins of aesthetic desire, to depict nature, and convey its miraculous operations mimetically. Not accidentally, the poppy as the chosen plant, equally embodies the biological specimen of the flower that has represented the desire for the dream and trance in Western European culture. Its counterpart, Untitled, in utter reversal of the still life structure, is based on a film clip the artist recorded when studying the rotations of a carrousel and the screams and gestures of the inhabitants of its flying chairs. While seemingly a futurist celebration of machinic movement and joyful abandon, the clip is actually subjected to a rigorously structured pattern of programmed repetition, accompanied by an even more ominous enforcement of circular sound, the endless repetition of an unidentifiable, yet uncannily familiar menacing sonoric pattern.’ Benjamin Buchloh in James Coleman (London: Marian Goodman Gallery, 2016)
The exhibition will also include a third major installation, Coleman’s Photograph (1998-99), which consists of multiple, synchronized slide projections accompanied by a narrative voice-over. The sequence of photographs opens with abstracted, soft-focused images, which give way to a series of colourful vignettes from what appears to be a rehearsal for a children’s dance production in a school hall. The narrative appears to follow a young girl on what Kaja Silverman describes as her ‘voyage from solitariness to love’. A type of bildungs-roman, ‘it charts the girl’s journey from a perception which is at war with the colours and shapes of the world to one which embraces them.’2 Meanwhile, the soundtrack, in the form of a girl’s voice, offers a melancholic interior monologue on the ‘lone spirit’, the ‘silent soul’ and the ‘dark hours’ in a thoughtful and measured cadence. In line with Coleman’s wider practice and in a keeping with the title of the work, the installation is deeply self-referential, meditating on the form of its own existence. The repeated tableaux of children in brightly coloured costumes framed within shallow sets calls to mind the theatre while the two-dimensional projected images combined with sound is cinematic in structure.
Coleman’s Ligne de Foi (1991), is based on a famous Currier and Ives print of the Battle of Bull Run from the American Civil War. The work exists in two versions: a slide projection and the single channel video shown here. Coleman presents a re-enactment of the historical events illustrated in the print, and asks us to consider the culturally inflected nature of our own perception. Further considering the subjectivity of a singular viewpoint, Carosello (1972) combines a slide show with still photographs, synthesising the view both into and out of a carousel ride deploying the blur of motion to confound us with illegibility and ambiguity.
Also on view will be a selection of seminal 16mm films made at the beginning of Coleman’s two decades working and studying in Milan. Each film is a single take, often in static shots, meditating on a prosaic subject. The films will be shown on rotation over the course of the exhibition, and include Pheasant, Work Apron, Clock, La Valle della Morte, Skull and Fly (all from 1970). A schedule for the films will be available from the gallery.