Two film installations by Paul Sharits (1943–1993) anchored Greene Naftali’s second exhibition of his work. One of the films is hypnotic and, on the surface, abstract. The other is anxiety-inducing and, at least to some degree, representational. Each, in different ways, exemplifies how Sharits complicated the formalism of the self-reflexive cinema he helped to pioneer.
Proponents of what P. Adams Sitney dubbed “structural film” in 1969, Sharits and peers including Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton took as their subject the materials, processes and language of the medium itself. Eschewing traditional nar- rative and dramatic structure, these artists instead made movies whose content was the physical properties of the film stock, the mechanical workings of the projector and the subjective perceptions of the viewer.
Sharits’s particular concerns, however, were not purely ontological. On the one hand, his ambition was to bring the cinematic experience closer to the experience of looking at a painting. On the other hand (and increasingly toward the end of the 1970s), he was interested in using structural methodologies to evoke psychological and emotional states.
At the painterly end of the spectrum is the earlier of the two films, Apparent Motion (1975), generated by enlarging frames of black-and-white film until their microscopic grain was visible as a field of randomly distributed particles. These images were then copied multiple times, using different colored gels, and the copies superimposed on one another. In the resulting 28-minute movie, multi-hued specks dance and pulsate like a swarm of insects or the glinting of sun on water, their cosmic dance periodically interrupted by splices in the film and by Brobdingnagian pieces of dust.
Darker and more disturbing (although not without a formal beauty of its own) is 3rd Degree (1982), an installation of three film loops projected side by side. Each projection shows a filmstrip being run backward and forward at varying speeds. The image on the strip is of a match being lit and waved in a woman’s face. The soundtrack is a buzz like a rattlesnake’s warning and a woman’s defiant voice saying, “Look, I won’t talk.” Every so often the strip stops moving and begins to bubble and deliquesce (in the film, not in real life), as if in the heat of the projector’s bulb. The second loop is a film of the first and the third loop is a film of the second, the original image by now barely decipherable.
The show also presented a group of Sharits’s works on paper—including diagrammatic, color-coded film “scores,” diaristic scribblings and hallucinatory marker drawings—as well as two abstract “paintings” made from strips of film sandwiched between Plexiglas. Alternately lyrical and existential, they reflect the scope of Sharits’s project—to create, from film’s most basic parts, an expansive art that could bridge illusory and real space, metaphor and fact, cinema and life.
Photo: View of Paul Sharits’s 3rd Degree, 1982, 16mm film, three screens, 7 1/2-minute loop; at Greene Naftali.