Leslie Thornton

New York

at Winkleman


On the surface, the works in this exhibition appeared to be a celebration of technology. The heart of the show involved the digital transformations of short clips of wildlife footage into kaleidoscopic patterns. However, it was hard not to apply a metaphysical read to the work. By means of a remapping algorithm, simple actions—an orangutan scratching his nose, a pair of zebras traipsing across a savanna, ants bustling in and out of a crack in a rock—had been fractured into mandalalike abstractions that shift and rearrange as the animals move. The new images bring to mind iconic central core forms with spiritual associations, among them snowflakes, stars, sunbursts and rose windows.

Thornton is a cinematic pioneer who is best known for productions like her ongoing film series “Peggy and Fred in Hell” (1985-), a postapocalyptic narrative encompassing current and obsolete technologies, found footage and improvisation. She noted in an online interview that she fell into the present body of work (dated 2010) by accident, when she began playing around with some videos she had shot of her parrot. It’s easy to see why she became so captivated.

Thornton presents two versions of each video clip, the original footage and the manipulated footage, in circular fields side by side—hence the title of the series: “Binocular.” The pairs are visually connected by color and movement. Otherwise, they present radically different visions of reality. The original clips are beautifully photographed, though unexceptional, examples of wildlife documentary film. We get to peer into the eye of a cockatoo as he peers back, or watch close up as an enormous python sidles along a branch.

In the transformed images, the recognizable world, with all its irregularity and serendipity, disappears and is replaced by mysterious circular patterns radiating outward. They manifest an almost primal geometry, presenting hexagonal or octagonal shapes that pulse from the center. Formally they are amazingly diverse—the computer program picks up little details and multiplies them, making for surprising moments, as when the orangutan’s eyes momentarily form a ring, or the hindquarters of the zebra are turned into a small Op motif. They are also constantly changing—even when the snake is still, with a fragment of its fleshy body duplicated to create a stable frame around the abstracted composition, the gentle stirring of leaves above produces an evanescently shifting green center. Rates of change differ—a lizard sitting motionless on a gently swaying green stalk becomes a slightly undulating star shape. In contrast, frenetic ants throw off throbbing rings of bulbous shapes.

While the original clips reflect our normal sense of time and space, the altered footage seems to bring us into the idealized realm of religion or science. The cosmos becomes a reflection of the all-seeing eye of God or the pulsating energy thrown off by the Big Bang. Reconfigured and freshly animated, Thornton’s digitized universe reignites our sense of wonder toward the complexities of nature.

Photo: Leslie Thornton: Binocular (Zebra), 2010, single-channel HD video, approx. 1 minute; at Winkleman.