New York-based photographer and video artist John Pilson (b. 1968) dismantles quotidian life through satirical observations and mesmerizing tableaux, often using the urban landscape and its systematized environments as his stage. Frolic and Detour (2010)—the centerpiece of Pilson’s recent exhibition—is a silent, 12-minute video installation. Nine monitors are hung side by side in a long row, suggesting successive frames of a filmstrip. Their fractured sequences of interrelated images, which simultaneously change every 10 to 25 seconds, loosely describe the life of the lawyer, Arnold Mandell. (He is a real lawyer, but the scenes are staged.) Offering multiple viewpoints and repeated imagery, Pilson’s quirky narrative meanders back and forth from impersonal office spaces to intimate domestic settings and exterior surroundings. We see him in his kitchen with his wife, playing tennis, in a session with his shrink and at a staff meeting, among other activities. Poking fun at our collective routines, Pilson’s mise-en-scènes curiously evoke the stylized sets and droll posturing of characters in a Jacques Tati movie.
The video opens with straight-on views of wood paneling on an office wall. It then segues to the protagonist’s morning hours and commute to Manhattan, including a walk through his suburban neighborhood during which he is sequentially transferred from screen to screen. In one of the work’s weirder sequences, Mandell sleeps peacefully in bed, his bald head on a pillow, while what appears at first to be some kind of spider creeps up the side of his face. The next sequence reveals that it is in fact the skeletal hand of a character dressed up as the grim reaper—in a cheesy hooded costume complete with scythe—who bobs behind the unaware Mandell as he goes through his morning toilette in red-and-white-striped pajamas. Another section comprises shots of Mandell sitting at his desk amid a sea of dog-eared folders, along with close-ups of his fingertip dexterously picking poppy seeds (from his bagel) off a document, and fishbowl views of the ceiling. These mundane scenes are interspersed with contemplative interludes: abstractions of flickering sunlight rimming door frames and filtering through blinds to form arcs and halos, and slow hypnotic passages of lightly falling snow against a brick wall. Paradoxically evinced from the constraints and tedium of Mandell’s life, Pilson’s lyrical and comical juxtapositions underscore the unpredictability, beauty and sometimes absurd nature of ordinary existence that both defines and consumes us.
The exhibition also showcased two series of photographs (from 2007 and 2011) with similar themes, encapsulating the artist’s idiosyncratic perspective. Banal subject matter such as office cubicles, piles of paper and an apartment interior are transformed into striking formal compositions that recall Jan Groover’s still lifes. In addition, the show presented an amusing survey of video shorts, made between 2008 and 2011. In one, the slightly ridiculous footage consists entirely of a discussion around a boardroom table on the difference between being called a “dick” and a “jerk.”
Photo: John Pilson: Frolic and Detour, 2010, multichannel video installation, 12 minutes; at Nicole Klagsbrun.