I worked for a year at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative just before it left its location in the Clocktower Gallery. The majority of my time there involved cleaning and inspecting films, and while generally speaking, this was a pretty tedious task, it was fascinating to spin certain films through the rewinds and imagine what they would look like projected. Paul Sharits’s Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976) was one of these films. The micro-pairings that make up his montage could be seen here explicitly if no less mysteriously. Sharits wrote that this film was meant to approximate the experience of having a seizure in the bodies of its spectators, and when projected, it strobes and pulsates, creating a stunning and absorbing experience. Sharits’s editing borrows from Eisenstein’s dialectical approach: contrasting primary colors flash before the viewer’s eyes, producing a synthesized third color in their mind. Cranking through these frames, stopping at my leisure, offered a view into the film’s meticulous construction, an insight into how its unique brand of extrasensory perception is made.
Greene Naftali’s recent installation of Paul Sharits’s work grants a similar access to the planning and considerations that frame this artist’s process. The exhibition presents a body of work whose diversity is instantly striking. On display are psychedelic illustrations of reaching hands, made with felt pen on paper, and his collages of cocktail napkin musings. His obsessively detailed “film scores” each depict a series of multicolored lines drawn on graphing paper that schematize a possible movie, although how such scores are translated onto film is unclear. The Frozen Film Frame series (1971-76) are comprised of filmstrips inside large sheets of Plexiglass that are hung from the ceiling. Each frame is filled with a brightly tinted color, which creates a diagonal mosaic of yellows, reds, blues, and pinks when placed side by side. Also included are the precise blueprints for 3rd Degree (1982), which map out the intended placement of the projectors and speakers for the installation of this film and show Sharits’s concern with his work not only as an unfolding of time, or as a sculptural object, but also as a place to be inhabited.
Various forms of expressionism rear their heads in the mounted images: Abstract Expressionism in the frantic lines of Tallahassee Cloud Cover Anxiety (1982); German Expressionism in the angular depictions of hands in drawings such as Hand and Cube (1982); even that kind of free-form self-expression, characteristic of the beatnik writers, in the writings scrawled across the pages of Violin Sexuality (1982). Although all the work conveys the distinctive personality of its creator, it is one of Sharits’s strongest assets as an artist that he often pairs subjectivism with an adherence to self-imposed rules. These guidelines have an abstracting function that’s very different from that of Abstract Expressionism, taking what might otherwise be simple, personal accounts of an individual’s internal life and transforming them into a strange, vibrant, and opaque collection of objects. If we take the example of Tallahassee Cloud Cover Anxiety, we can clearly see this double functioning, where the multicolored lines that cover the image could just as easily graph humidity in the atmosphere as they could index the nervous energy of their draftsman. The ever-present attention to detail and use of compact repetition exude a sense of both manic obsession and adamant professionalism.
All these works frame the two installation films to come, 3rd Degree and Apparent Motion (1975). In a way, his interdisciplinary approach complicates the strain of film purism that Sharits often adopts in his writing, where he focuses on the need to elucidate film’s basic structures rather than using film to create an effect or a story. Sharits believed that such a revelation did not need to turn off a general audience, despite their lack of an explicit message or narrative, and that their movement out of the theater and into a gallery setting was an act of democratic populism, moving to a more honest mode of display, rather than the top-down approach that he saw coming out of Hollywood. The films shown in the gallery are impeccably crafted, each fitting into his overall aesthetic project. 3rd Degree (1982) uses three projectors, each placed at a further distance from the wall, resulting in successively larger images, from left to right. The projectors have been rigged, through the use of a series of mirrors, to project the images on their side. On the far left we watch a reel of film, sprocket holes and all, being run through an optical printer. The printer is always either too fast or too slow to create the illusion of motion between its frames, resulting in either a slideshow-like movement from image to image, or an unrecognizable blur. The frames running through the printer depict a woman waving a lit match while staring into the camera’s lens. At times the film’s movement stops all together, causing the bulb to burn the image. The blistering emulsion, with its numerous emerging bubbles of boiling chemicals, offers a pure optical pleasure that gets to the heart of the cinema’s ability to capture and document natural phenomenon, enlarging events that occupy mere millimeters into spectacles that can envelop a human’s entire perception.
But for each of these moments of visual pleasure there are equal movements of distancing, which keep the audience from losing themselves in the screen. Each subsequent projection repeats the process of optically reprinting the film seen to its left, accumulating sets of sprocket holes as they progress. The flaming imposition of the real upon the illusions in the film, those moments when the film is shown as a material object which can be burned rather than an experience of time and space, is subsumed again by the medium, again captured and repeated in the next projection. Sharits undoubtedly uses the construction of the piece to reveal the cinematic devices and mechanisms behind the illusion of the moving image—it has been noted by many commentators that his inclusion of the projectors themselves in the gallery space works towards this end—but 3rd Degree cannot be reduced to only this effect. This film both trades in and effectively critiques cinematic illusionism at the same time. Andrei Tarkovsky believed that through the use of paradox, of two irreconcilable extremes, he could expand the meaning of his art beyond its borders. Similarly, beyond the opposition of intellectual distance and sensory excitement in 3rd Degree there exists a pervasive mood or tone, a feeling of pain and wonder that can be found in all of Sharits’s work that has as much to do with being alive as it does with watching a film.
BENJAMIN SCHULTZ-FIGUEROA is an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.