Answers to Questions: John Wood and Paul Harrison
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
John Wood and Paul Harrison, Notebook (video still), 2004; DVD: color, sound; 49 minutes 40 seconds; courtesy the artists and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
John Wood and Paul Harrison's short videos, which constitute the bulk of Answers to Questions, the British duo’s current show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, are staged like paintings and paced like jokes. A setup is followed by a simple action—a ball dropped or a switch flipped—and then a punch line, which often delivers a lovely and unexpected shift of perception in lieu of laughs. In Twenty Six (Drawing and Falling Things) (2001), for example, the nebbishy Wood stands in a bare blue room, pointing a leaf blower at a white rectangle on the wall. He turns off the blower and the rectangle slides to the floor, outed by its wrinkly descent as a piece of paper.
Wood and Harrison's artistic terrain is pointedly low-fi, populated only by the artists themselves and a Home Depot gift-card's worth of supplies. Newton, Euclid, Laurel and Hardy are the cardinal points by which they navigate, though art-historically the pair's most obvious antecedents (and targets) are Bruce Nauman's generation of conceptual and performance artists. All the appurtenances of archetypal performance art are here: the bare rooms, the dark matching uniforms, the unwavering deadpans, the understated—which is not to say casual or careless—camera work. Hundredweight (2003) shows Wood filmed from above walking a small room's tight perimeter and clanking a bar against grates attached to the walls; he's a bored prisoner reenacting Nauman's 1967 film Walking In an Exaggerated Manner Around The Perimeter of a Square. Wood and Harrison’s bright palette and simple shapes also nod to a dime-store version of Color Field painting. A bird's-eye view of a leaky cup and saucer in Notebook (2004), for instance, evokes a Kenneth Noland target.
But pedigree isn't what saves the work from stoner autostimulation. Wood and Harrison meticulously frame the duration, pacing and field of vision of their videos. Viewers are given few clues of depth or perspective, and the stolid camera work precludes any chance to look around the objects. In Night and Day (2008) a black dot hovers in front of a white wall. Shown stretching into a line, it's unmasked as a slowly rotating cylinder. Although cuts are rare, Wood and Harrison calibrate the videos' beginnings and endings to be similarly unforthcoming. We know what we need to know when they want us to know it. The rush of the final reveal is the gratification of having lost and then regained one’s bearings. The videos further conceal the gimmickry with high contrast and slightly blown-out image quality. Wood and Harrison's ubiquitous monofilament puppet strings are rendered all but invisible, and the stage sets forgo the tactility of real surfaces for a monochromatic ether. In another section of Notebook the image of a sponge absorbing paint, while still familiar, also appears as a blue square materializing in a white field.
John Wood and Paul Harrison, Night and Day (video still), 2008; DVD, color, sound; 24 minutes; courtesy the artists and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
In an artist talk programmed for the exhibition, John Wood described himself as a populist for making work "anyone can make," but that's not what Wood and Harrison are doing. Claiming that any Home Depot shopper would produce a similar body of work is like claiming that anyone with a pencil can draw well. Elegance with simple materials and simpler means is the opposite of amateurism. Wood was presumably referring to the accessibility of his and Harrison’s work. It's true that the immediate pleasures of their work don't require a huge investment from viewers, but the points of entry they provide can sometimes be grating. Wood and Harrison spend copious time falling and getting hit in the head, possibly on the theory that slapstick is the antidote for pretension. But Wood hitting the ground strapped to a mattress doesn't feel like a sendup of affected conceptual artists; it feels like a sendup of bored Jackass audiences who can't appreciate Wood and Harrison's koan-like, simple and uncanny videos without an occasional tennis ball to the noggin. Any audience deserves more credit than that.
Clark Feldman is an artist living and working in Houston.
This show will remain on view through April 24, 2011.