According to British poet and critic Edith Sitwell, English eccentricity may be “the Ordinary carried to a high degree of pictorial perfection.” Fellow Brit Jeremy Deller’s recent show in New York riffed on this concept with a screening of three video documentaries sentimentalizing Britain’s most Sitwellian characters. Complementing these videos were two galleries featuring the artist’s text-based wall pieces.

Deller’s documentaries, shown here in a darkened hippie haven strewn with beanbags, reveal a true knack: empathic reverence for the absolute individual. The Bruce Lacey Experience (2012, 67 minutes) illuminates the life of the underknown English artist and performer, now in his 80s. Deller and filmmaker collaborator Nick Abrahams depict Lacey through interviews and charming archival footage of Lacey’s many artistic experiments, including a flying contest and his own homemade robot, Rosa Bosom. In So Many Ways to Hurt You (2010, 30 minutes), the flamboyant, cross-dressing Welsh wrestler Adrian Street preens his feathers and asks, “Have you ever seen muscles on a rose?” The film offers a hypnotic scene of the 70-something man, who still wrestles, power walking on a treadmill while staring at pictures of his younger self. Culture Beat’s “Mr. Vain” blares in the background. Revealing the vainglories we cling to as we age, the scene also invites critical inquiry: at what point does eccentricity morph from personal freedom to personal prison?

Our Hobby is Depeche Mode (2006, 63 minutes) does not celebrate a single British eccentric—but it is eccentric and devoted to England. Another collaboration with Abrahams, the film is a meta-hagiography of the titular 1980s band, a national synth-pop treasure. The band members are nowhere to be found in the film, only escalating their deification; the footage is devoted solely to their fans. We see documentation from 1990 of a 15,000-person “Depeche Mode riot” in Los Angeles, and scenes of a German family whose hobby is to dress up like the band. One imagines our descendants in the far future encountering this film and wondering who these important ambassadors were, uniting such different types of people. Deller’s documentaries, with their shaky handheld footage and hokey visual devices, are both brilliant and not that special. Their success lies in his sincere devotion to the wonders of unbridled, unconventional personalities.

Deller’s 20-year practice is marked by ephemeral actions, including parades, battle reenactments and cross-country road trips. His text-based pieces are often made for these events, as banners, signs and T-shirts. In the gallery, his word works seemed in need of a more defined context. The framed silkscreen prints, A Range Rover Crushed and Made into a Bench and Doctor David Kelly (both 2012), present the titular phrases, with one word per sheet hung in a line on the wall. Both make a political statement; the latter name-checks the UN weapons inspector whose off-the-record conversation with a journalist may have led to his untimely death, possibly by murder, in 2003. The former is a hallmark in Deller’s extensive phrase repertoire, and, according to a gallery worker, critiques the use of gas-guzzling expedition vehicles to run errands. These pieces may be designed to ignite critical contemplation, but on blank gallery walls they seem to lack a heartbeat. With no chests to emblaze or banners to bedeck, they do not have the immediate emotional resonance of Deller’s preternaturally capable films.

Photo: Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams: The Bruce Lacey Experience, 2012, film, 67 minutes;
at Gavin Brown.