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.