I had been sitting on the floor of the darkened main space of Luhring Augustine for a little while when I noticed the branch. It was slender, with a few knobby buds—the sort of thing a little kid would brandish on the sidewalk, maybe, and then discard in a Chelsea gallery her parents dragged her into on a wet, raw mid-March Saturday.
So strange to see organic detritus in these hulking nowhere-spaces—but it sort of made sense tucked into a corner of “The Waning of Justice,” a collection of videos by Charles Atlas conceived in large part around sunsets he filmed while at the Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island, Fla. Blown-up, color-saturated, overwhelming scenes of nature covered the walls, the kind of drenched, vibrant sky and seascapes you want to sink into forever (or, in tedious 21st-century fashion, take selfies with); maybe the little branch crept in itself, to get some warmth.
The name Charles Atlas doesn’t immediately conjure images of suns melting into oceans. But I do think of him as an artist in frequent love with juxtaposition—recall his longtime collaboration with Merce Cunningham—and here it was a major engine. Over spliced-together footage of sunsets, words formed in pairs—GLITTER UTOPIA, HISTORY SHADOW, PSYCHE GLACIER—their blocky letters revealing themselves individually like those on “Wheel of Fortune,” and sliding away once the words were complete. At the center of the space was a freestanding digital clock, counting up rapidly to 18:00, then going back down to zero. Everywhere, time and language intruded as bodies disrupting space.
And then there was the smaller back room, whose contents troubled those in the front (as always, the margins complicated the center). I heard the piece first, its insistent, almost querulous litany—a rush of word and song—cutting into the gorgeous visuals in the main space. A close-up video portrait of the drag artist Lady Bunny, Here she is . . . v1 (2015) is as overwhelming in its own way as those sunsets, especially coming on the heels of them.
Everything was synchronized visually and aurally in “The Waning of Justice,” lending the show (Atlas’s second solo exhibition with Luhring Augustine, following his 2012 inauguration of the gallery’s Bushwick space) a rich theatricality. The 25-minute loop included built-in downtime, the house going still and dark between saturations, broken by the elegiac strains of a bagpipe.
What are we mourning? Everything. Done up in full tacky glory, Lady Bunny sings, lacerating herself for screwing up a relationship. But mostly she talks, fulminating—and vulgarly cracking wise—about the world going to hell in all the ways we know it is. I wanted desperately to flee that maniacally blonde bouffant wig (again thoughts of “Wheel of Fortune,” Vanna White meets Divine), especially when the comedy routine slid into familiar misogynistic grooves, and sink back down into the sunsets.
But there’s no escape. The day is waning, along with anyone’s sense that things will come out right in the end. Atlas periodically cuts Lady Bunny’s sound, building in breathers and underlining the impotence of the angry citizenry. But she gets the last word: “No one is talking about peace.”
For those acquainted solely with Charles Atlas’s documentary work and video portraiture, the artist/filmmaker’s recent exhibition, “The Illusion of Democracy,” likely came as a surprise. Created with After Effects editing software, the three large-scale video projections selected to christen Luhring Augustine’s new Bushwick outpost take a limited sequence of numerals (1-6) as the basis for a series of carefully choreographed, predominantly monochromatic motion displays reminiscent at times of the animated imagery of music visualizers or screen savers.
The show’s centerpiece, 143652 (2012), encompassed the entire rear wall of the impeccably renovated former warehouse. In this work, the six digits of the title are arranged and rearranged into a variety of seemingly arbitrary combinations, as a vertical bar of variously hued light passes back and forth across the projection like the image sensor on a gigantic flatbed scanner. At intervals the scene shifts and one is left staring into a dark void populated by tiny, glimmering numerals-a display resembling Microsoft’s once-ubiquitous star-field simulation.
In an alcove was a three-channel video projection titled Painting by Numbers (2011). Utilizing three purpose-built walls, the work fully enclosed the viewer’s field of vision. As flickering numerals swim and glide across the walls, assembling into dense, cryptic configurations or exploding outward like numerical supernovas, the viewer is treated to a highly condensed rendition of information-age sensory overload. Atlas is known for his pioneering work in dance film, which includes a long-term collaboration with the late Merce Cunningham, and this newer work bears the mark of his pedigree; the individual sequences of the video unfold like a series of acts in a digital ballet.
Completing the triad was Plato’s Alley (2008), a video projected within a boxlike space on the other side of the gallery. This work begins with a single bar of light forming itself into a grid that gradually creeps outward along the ceiling, walls and floor of the semi-enclosed space. In the final sequence, those stubborn numerals reappear, whipping themselves into a swirling, chaotic frenzy before the projection dims and the process repeats itself. Originally part of a series inspired by the tornado warnings that were a common source of alarm during Atlas’s Midwestern upbringing, the work seems intended to arouse foreboding; and yet, as was the case throughout the exhibition, references to the material world are left for the viewer to infer.
Perhaps the sole exception to this was the show’s title, which invited us to read the work within the context of the contemporary political landscape. But while one might readily interpret Atlas’s arbitrary numerical sequences as a reference to the deindividuation of the political subject or his cyclones of ciphers as an allusion to climatic imbalances in the economy, one senses that any definitive attribution of meaning to this formally compelling, if psychologically reticent, body of work would require placing faith in an illusion.
Photo: Charles Atlas: Painting By Numbers, 2011, 3-channel video projection, 8¼ minutes; at Luhring Augustine Bushwick.