June 11, 2013

Christopher Samuels :: New Works and Short Films

Christopher Samuels: New Works & Short Films opened on Saturday, 8-June 2013 at Popps Packing in Hamtramck.

For the show, Mr. Samuels divided the gallery into three rooms, one for film screening, one for dance, and one for installation work. For the latter, Mr. Samuels transformed the gallery itself into an installation. When you enter, your first thought might be, “What the hell?” The works make use of artifacts of the room to cloud the distinction between artwork and gallery. The gallery is the artwork. You will not see a white cube with objects and title cards beside them. In fact, the work here verges on participatory in the sense that the visitor feels disoriented, uncomfortable, unsure how to react — at least this one did, as did others asked for their reaction — visitors mill about, searching for landmarks in a strange dance of their own.

The room feels spare and industrial, unfinished. A sense of the place, Mr. Samuels said, dictated what happened in the room. He looked around at the odd shaped walls, with alcoves and doorways, and tweaked them with objects he placed thereabout. He hoped the objects would feel organic, he said. They do, but at the same time they are jarring — like a tumor, organic but indicative of illness. An LED light down under a sewer grate, glows upward like a compound-eyed alien trapped beneath the iron bars.


A set of clinical white curtains across a wide doorway to an alcove, backlit with harsh florescent light, forms another work. That streaming glare from between those curtains, like an operating room dropped into this high-ceilinged former industrial space feels spooky; it almost makes you shudder, and it might if you were alone in that room.


A semi-circular florescent tube set on top of a pipe outlet inset into the battered concrete floor, the electrical parts of the lamp concealed by a rag, glowed like a strange interface to some unseen, menacing machine.

Nearby, prints of three prismatic color smears in various orientations and resolutions hang beside a simple gray scale transition; all unlabeled, as though readily interpretable or usable to those in the know. But you are not in the know. At least not when you enter this room.


A projector down near the floor shines the image of a hand, index finger extended, pointing to something unseen on the floor. A piece of glass, propped between the projector and the wall at a forty-five degree angle redirects a washed out facsimile of the moving, gesturing, imploring hand onto the adjacent wall.


Shreds of foliage adorn an apparently functional gas meter, pipes projecting from a wall and disappearing through the concrete floor. The foliage might be reclaiming this room for Mother Nature, except the foliage is dead and desiccated. Reclamation aborted.


A black and orange plastic spool rests inexplicably in the center of the room, in peril of stray kicks by passersby. No matter, its relevance, or irrelevance persists.


Black plastic netting drapes the corner of one wall. Remnants of a former purpose that now only form patterns.


Up high, concealing a row of windows, Mr. Samuels installed a semi-transparent mural comprised of multiple sheets turned out to the street. During the day, you see the mural in the room, but reversed, like a window sign. At night, the image fades and the sheets take on a pale blue due to insufficient light penetrating from outside.


In the next room, Mr. Samuels ran his short films in a continuous loop. They are: Indian Shield (4:56), Loosie (4:00), Indian Jim (5:24). All of them projected a haunting sense that disaster lurked around the corner, but all imply disaster might yet be averted. The saturated color hints they were shot on 16mm film, but this effect could be digital magic. The sound comes a bit muffled at times, especially in a crowded room; words get lost.

Indian Shield and Indian Jim featured the same actor, telling a self-revealing story, but from slightly different perspectives. In Hollywood’s reductive shorthand, think Midnight Cowboy meets Blue Velvet: the images seem straightforward, but the soundtrack and the editing create a nasty sense of foreboding. Both feature a man recovering from a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, but both were about more than that. Indian Shield included additional actors, scenes of the roiling surface of the sun (Indian shield?) and a narrator telling of times when it is safe to stare into its glare. A party, after much tossing back of shots, ends with a peculiar toast to art. The film ends with the lead actor and another man doing Tai Chi beside a porta-john, aching it seems to keep their shit together, even if they are the only ones who believe they actually might.

Indian Jim features the same actor and the same shoulder injury, but he does pushups here, insists on recovery, and ends with the man, shot face on, riding a bike through downtown Detroit at night. With both of these films, one gets the sense of watching a stranger kicked to the curb by a capricious labor market in a post-industrial town where a man without formal education credentials, or adequate drive to re-create himself, ends up disenchanted, deluded, and desperate for a leg up from a society that mostly doesn’t give a damn about him and wishes he would disappear. But he won’t — Mr. Samuels proves that.

Loosie, opens with a woman walking on the sidewalk in a rundown neighborhood. Soon she arrives at a dingy home. She rattles off numerous banal hardships in her life with a cigarette scratched voice, until she finally describes her home as a jail where no one visits. There are lots of close in shots, and her suffering infects the viewer with a desperate sense of malaise. The film ends with Loosie walking down the same sidewalk towards an unknown destination. Things may turn out all right, but one senses that for an impoverished and disenfranchised woman, life is nasty, brutish, and (mercilessly) short.

Towards the end of the evening as scheduled for the opening, Paul Bancell, Megan Major and Sam Horning performed a dance piece that both complemented and extended Mr. Samuels’ transformation of the gallery. They all moved with grace and emanated emotion that suddenly made the small space allotted to their performance seem large. Their use of the “found” stage — not a formal stage with formal lighting and formal wings — mirrored Mr. Samuels’ adaptation of the gallery space. The movement flowed effortlessly and gorgeously from the dancers, and this old meatpacking plant became somewhere else; took on a new set of dimensions.

Mr. Samuels’ show takes the typical polished, tightly curated gallery show and smacks it in the head. This is not the sort of show where “the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” You should feel out of your element here, whomever you are. The artwork of Mr. Samuels breaks standard assumptions about the presentation and constitution of art and erases standard descriptive vocabulary for such events. The art here might be described as dadaist (anti-art, embraces chaos, opposes conventional standards); postminimalist (uses existing objects, esthetic depends on form); fluxus (mixes media: sculptural objects, prints, painting, mural, film, music, dance, the gallery space, the audience, the happening, all of it!).

Or maybe its none of that, and just happens to be what Christopher Samuels gives us. No matter how you describe it, Mr. Samuels took a risk conceiving and presenting this show. It’s an all or nothing, what have you done for me lately world for artists, and one misstep can send their career off the rails. So I do define what the artist did here as real risk, requiring real premeditation, and that, aside from subjective artistic merit, is what separates this from what any six year old can do (to refute a remark in a review by a British newspaper of a Henry Moore show). We all need to be smacked in the head once in a while. The show runs through 29-June.

Here’s a poem to ponder:


Why do I write today?

The beauty of
the terrible faces
of our nonentities
stirs me to it:

colored women
day workers—
old and experienced—
returning home at dusk
in cast off clothing
faces like
old Florentine oak.


the set pieces
of your faces stir me—
leading citizens—
but not
in the same way.

William Carlos Williams