Entering “Bestiary,” Fraser Stables’s third exhibition at Georgia Scherman Projects, viewers found themselves immersed in a darkened room filled with minimalist constructions. Five elegant armatures composed of steel poles each supported a medium-size wood panel, hovering slightly below eye level, onto which a tiny projector beamed a video. The gallery was not so dark that it prevented appreciation of the installation’s design, but the videos (all 2013) were what dominated our attention.
It took a minute to comprehend the visual content of the videos, since their distinct but overlapping soundtracks did not assist the eye. Grunting and breathing accompanied a morphing dragon on one screen, a hummingbird being blown about on another, a rampant lion, a tiger roaring and a chameleon on a branch emerging from and melting into darkness. Only slowly do we come to realize that these grainy, blurry details are tattoos on the bodies of boxers and mixed martial artists striking blows. Three of the videos show only the tattoos, but with the lion and the tiger, we caught glimpses of a human face or a hand.
The videos function as psychological perception games: while the looped footage doesn’t change, our understanding of it does. One minute, we discerned what seemed to be fantastical cartoon animations, and the next, the movements of the fighters.
The Scottish-born Stables, who lives in the U.S., has always strived in his videos and photographs to circumvent easy judgment of his subjects—an aging Texas rock fan, for example, portrayed over many years in the photo series “Solo Shoot” (2001-ongoing). Stables filmed the men for “Bestiary” over the past two years with a 16mm movie camera. Transferring the film to digital video, he manipulated each frame to position the tattoos in the center of the shot. This cropping accentuates the natural movement of the inked drawings on the human bodies, suggesting the spontaneous animation of the depicted animals. The videos, which start and finish with a glowing white light warmed by the gold leaf covering the wood screens, bring to mind Andy Warhol’s films, perhaps because of the graininess of the imagery and the close physicality of the subjects. They also generate genuine surprise. Not unlike the best of Bill Viola’s early videos, they feel new and spectacular.
In an adjacent room, nine color photographs hung in a sequence that constitutes a poetic meditation on architecture and masculinity. A possible key to interpreting “Bestiary” could be found in one of these images: Philip Johnson’s Living Room (2009). In this 30-by-20-inch photo, a partial detail of The Burial of Phocion by Nicolas Poussin is glimpsed through one of the walls of Johnson’s Glass House. Within the modernist living room, the painting is exhibited on a cold metal armature not unlike those bearing Stables’s videos. The artist has carefully aligned the edges of the Poussin with the corners of windows and walls so that the painting becomes the fulcrum of the space. Its lush Neo-Classical landscape brings complete balance to the view, eliciting a visual pleasure that modernist rigor often denies. Paintings don’t choose their locations any more than tattoos choose the skin on which they are inscribed. The tattoo beasts repeat their motion, trapped by the primal rituals of self-marking and fighting that have given them life. In this dance, masculinity is delicately eulogized.