Artforum, May 2005


By Brian Sholis

London-based artist Mark Lewis distills complex ruminations--on film as a medium; on the social and economic character of specific places; on the relationship between observer and observed--into deceptively simple films that marry Hollywood's high-end production values to Andy Warhol's dazed gaze. These reflexive works--unedited, often silent, and never more than ten minutes long--usually pair an isolated cinematic or technical convention with some sort of outwardly unexceptional activity. In the three 35 mm films (transferred to DVD) in this, Lewis's first solo exhibition in New York, the artist employs a slow zoom, a slower pan, and a static shot, respectively to document scenes in Toronto and eastern Ontario's Algonquin Park.

The majority of Algonquin Park: September, 2001, consists of a static view of a grove of evergreens on an island seen across a mist-covered lake. The heroic scale (each projection is approximately ten by fifteen feet), promontory viewpoint, and lack of movement give the work the aura of a Hudson River School canvas. Yet Lewis soon undermines this impression of a static structure by reintroducing film's inherent temporal dimension: A conoe, propelled by two figures, emerges from the mist and slowly moes from right to left across the water's surface. Before it reaches the lef-hand edge of the frame, the film ends abruptly and the lopop begins again. Algonquin Park: Early March, 2002, achieves an even greater sense of destabilization, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our cognitive abilities by pitting the eye against the mind. The film opens with a pure white screen that appears to be the sky, an intuition confimed by the appearance of two treetops that eventually pierce the bottom edge of the frame. As they push slowly upward, it appears that Lewis is panning downward, until another stand of trees appears from the upper right as if floating in the sky. Finally it becomes clear that the two belong to the same visual field, and we realize that Lewis has not been panning but rather zooming out from a snow-covered patch of frozen lake. The last, blandly pretty shot is of a group of skaters gliding acrossa rectangular section of ice. Again, almost as soon as we understand what has transpired, the film stops and begins again.

Thus it seems that nothing should be taken for granted in these two pastoral scenes, which is precisely why the seemingly innocuous Off Leash, 2004, is odd to the point of being uncanny. A straight description of the action couldn't be simpler: The roughly four-minute film depicts people, seen from above through bare tree branches, playing with their dogs in what appears to be the "off-leash" section of a park. But small details belie the apparent realism of what at first appears to be a happened-upon scene. The vantage point seems impossible, the mechanically smooth panning complicates our natural tendency to equate the camera and the human eye, and the fact that no one on-screen acknowledges that the camera must be mounted on a crane (they are actors hired by Lewis) introduces an unavoidable staginess. The overall effect is akin to the famous "Hitchcock zoom," used in Vertigo (1958), wherein the camera's role in the construction of an image is temporarily made visible. (The tree, acting as a screen through which we view the scene, is an instance of this mediation in the film itself.) Mainstream narrative cinema strives to hide these effects; without sacrificing beauty, Lews's absorbing films about film successfully update the critical engagement that characterized '60s Structuralism and regain some of the wonderment of the Lumiere Brothers' early twentieth-century vignettes.


On View