Sunday, July 15, 2001

Art review

Baldino films explore human perceptions

By Peter Obermark
Enquirer contributor

        You have an afternoon or evening free, and you're in the mood to see a film. You could head for the nearest Generiplex, and shell out nine bucks to see the latest over-hyped drivel coming out of Hollywood.

        Or you could could go to the Contemporary Arts Center and see some truly original and thoughtfully crafted works by video artist Phyllis Baldino in her exhibit Phyllis Baldino: times per second.

        Ms. Baldino is fascinated by human perception, and how it can be shaped and altered by one's life experiences. Three different areas of human perception — reality, time and color — are explored separately in three short films.

        The results are impressive.

        At first glance, Room 1503 in a Row is a straightforward filming of three consecutive, one-hour art history lectures for college undergraduates, all by the same professor.

        But look closely: During the second class, the professor addresses the students while a video monitor behind her plays a recording of the previous hour's lecture.

        As she delivers her third and final lecture, the monitor plays a recording of her second lecture, which in turn shows the playback of her first lecture.

        The film becomes, in effect, a video of a video of a video, and the impact on the viewer is immediately disorienting. It is also wonderfully satirical on several levels.

        For each one-hour lecture, the professor is expected to cover the topic of post-war art in its entirety. Under the best of circumstances this is an impossible task, but the video monitor in the background makes each successive lecture seem even more frenetic and self-defeating.

        For anyone who has logged time as a student or teacher in a college setting, the film becomes a hilarious parody of the near-useless “survey” course. On a deeper level, it is a wry commentary on a journalistic age when the lines between reporter and subject, news and entertainment, medium and message, have eroded almost to the point of extinction.

        The second film, 16 minutes lost, was inspired by science writer James Gleick's claim that most people spend, on average, 16 minutes each day searching for sundry lost objects. Ms. Baldino spent many months lugging around a video camera, seizing any opportunity to film friends and acquaintences as they hunt for misplaced keys, books, medicines and other items.

        Filmed in color, there is little exceptional about any one shot or sequence; rather, the effectiveness of 16 minutes lost stems from Ms. Baldino's precise and rapid-fire editing.

        Images of arms and hands opening drawers, rummaging through purses, and shuffling through papers, whiz by with dizzying speed. This gives the viewer a palpable sense of the frustrating race against time experienced by the people being filmed.

        The frenzied pace of “the search” is further emphasized by a two-channel format, which projects the film onto two separate screens at right angles to one another.

        Ms. Baldino's decision not to show the faces of her subjects is a sly touch: the viewer's ignorance on this point mirrors nicely the ignorance of the film's subjects as to the whereabouts of their lost objects.

        Finally, Color without Color explores the sense-world of color through the eyes of people afflicted with achromatopsia, a rare hereditary eye disease.

        Incapable of seeing color of any sort, achromats instead create their own color world by making subtle distinctions between shades of gray — distinctions that are lost to so-called “color-normal” people.

        Ms. Baldino interviewed dozens of achromats in the making of this film; the finished product consists of a series of vignettes, each featuring an individual achromat describing how she or he “sees” a specific color.

        Color without Color is filmed in black and white, but with a subtle and crucial twist: according to CAC curator Sue Spaid, “Each vignette features a seemingly black-and-white shot of the interviewee's home, yet each vignette is actually presented in the particular "gray' that matches the tonal quality under discussion.”

        The viewer thus gets to experience each color in the same way that the achromat experiences it. The end result is visually stunning and quietly profound.

        Over the past decade, Ms. Baldino has built a reputation as one of America's most original video artists. With this exhibit, it's easy to understand why. These are the works of a master, and shouldn't be missed.

        Phyllis Baldino: times per second, Contemporary Arts Center, through Aug. 26. 721-0390.


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