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Pioneers in video art, Jesper Just and Omer Fast produce such slick, well-acted tales they make the old rough-edged loops of introspective tedium, still a staple of museums’ contemporary wings, look like child’s play. Both auteurs employ the conventions of genre films only to upend them. But while Just sends taciturn types into absurdist song and dance, Fast draws his talkative characters into perpetual mysteries, denying them epiphanies or resolution.
The best of Fast’s three projects now screening in the city is Der Grote Boodschap (at Postmasters), a little masterpiece with a Flemish title that translates to The Big Message and, in slang, to The Big Shit. Fragmented in time, the story traces tenuous links (defecation is one) between the lives of various Belgians who describe unsettling events, among them an airline passenger who crapped on his seat and a man who swallowed diamonds. Fast’s unobtrusive camerawork keeps the frames claustrophobically tight, skillfully maintaining psychological tension—all of it reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s allusive novels. Less successful is Take a Deep Breath (also at Postmasters), a Seinfeld-like comedy about suicide bombing that strains for meta-fiction but, despite its subject, never really rises above TV’s mild enjoyments.
At the Whitney, there’s Nostalgia, an ambitious sequence about immigration and asylum that is, by turns, engrossing and sleepy. Three cleverly looping parts, all linked by barking dogs and a crude animal trap, touch on blaxploitation, low-budget horror, and the political thriller, but the enigmas tend to outweigh the meanings—in the end, you feel as if Fast has spent an hour describing a nightmare special only to him. Even so, his visions are often extraordinary, and his Möbius strip recursions will twist your brain.
Anthony McCall: ‘Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence)’
The city’s bans on cigarettes may have improved Anthony McCall’s health, but the cleaner air nearly killed his art career. In the 1970s, McCall became renowned for his minimalist sculptures of light—geometric animations whose projected beams, cutting through the smoke of Soho lofts, created ethereal, holograph-like cones. But after his medium essentially disappeared—and after substitutes, like dry ice, proved dissatisfactory—McCall ditched such inventions in favor of commercial graphic design. Now, new technology—computer-controlled haze machines, in particular—has revived his genius.
Here, in two rooms, McCall distills projected light down to its essence, engendering a kind of cinematic Zen. On the wall, pairs of elliptical rune-like shapes move in a slow dance while their white beams stretch across each space to form an irregular conical volume, its surface undulating with psychedelic shadows. Though accompanying sounds of traffic and the harbor ground the experience of one work in city life, you’ll feel, especially as you step inside the wondrously glowing enclosure, as if you’ve reached the astral plane. Sean Kelly Gallery, 528 W 29th, 212-239-1181. Through January 30
Josh Dorman: ‘New Works’
If Josh Dorman had been born in the 17th century, he would have become one of those eccentrics who curated the Wunderkammers, the room-size collections of oddities taken from nature, science, and myth. Aesthetically rooted in the past, Dorman is doing something similar in two dimensions, assembling found, antique images into marvelous collages of retro fantasy that suggest (as Dorman admits) Bruegel, Redon, and Chinese landscapes. On old U.S. Geological Survey maps, Dorman conjures new worlds based on the original locations. Careful in his progressions of color and shape, but never far from dreamed chaos, the artist inks backgrounds and textures, and layers dozens of items (often engravings) meticulously clipped from 19th-century miscellany.
In Thirty-Five Percent, a kind of madcap Darwinist vision, Dorman has surrounded the Pacific with monkeys, outmoded mechanical devices, and zoological imagery, all embedded in sinuously flowing topographies of jungles and mountains. In Versus, emphasizing the collection’s recurring dualism, a precarious pile of manmade things (devices, tools, architecture) stands across from a hill populated by animals and insects both odd and familiar. Like a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle, Dorman’s rich clutter keeps you searching for the next intriguing detail. Mary Ryan Gallery, 527 W 26th, 212-397-0669. Through February 6