In Brent Stewart and Willie Stewart’s (no relation) video Runners (2015), a two-door 1968 Plymouth Barracuda cruises down a winding country road. Brent is in the driver’s seat. Willie rides shotgun, a large rectangular object draped with a filthy pinkish towel on his lap.
The score of synth arpeggios and echoing vocal choruses sounds like New Age John Carpenter as the scene cuts to the pair walking through the woods. Brent leads the way. Willie hugs his secret bundle, which is revealed to be a glass aquarium. The pair arrive at the metal doors of a concrete bunker, which Nashville art lovers may recognize as James Turrell’s Blue Pesher in the sculpture garden at Cheekwood Museum of Art. The pair hesitate before Brent throws open the doors and they march down a dark hallway toward a shaft of light. Willie falls to his knees in the middle of a circle of shiny, black sand. He throws the towel back to reveal a glowing orb in the bottom of the glass tank. He fits the orb onto a fixture in the center of the sandy circle. In the last shot, the pair stare upwards at the skylight in the Turrell space, their faces are bathed in light, and they strain to keep their eyes open.
Brent Stewart is a Nashville native, and an established filmmaker, as well as a painter and sculptor; he received his MFA from Goldsmiths College in London, and his short film The Dirty Ones premiered at Sundance in 2009. Willie Stewart has played guitar with Yoko Ono, directed music videos for musical acts like Bluffing, and worked as a professional display artist. He attended Nashville’s Watkins College of Art, Design & Film before completing his Bachelor of Fine Art studies at Cooper Union. He’s currently a graduate student in the sculpture department at Yale. Considered together, these artists’ CVs steal across the borders between contemporary cinema and contemporary fine art, and the most interesting aspects of their new project point to the similarities and differences between gallery video art, theatrical films, stage productions, and performance art.
Runners screened in an expansive warehouse space down the hall from the Seed Space gallery. Projected on a large screen in darkness, the display is strikingly cinematic.
Although lots of bad video art offers the unimaginative documenting of inept performances, the Stewarts display some acting chops in their wordless roles, connecting the viewer to their loose narrative. Of course, acting and storylines also speak more to the aesthetics of cinema than those we expect from contemporary video art. Even exemplary video and performance artists like Bas Jan Ader or Patty Chang eschew straight acting for more absurd activities that might only find a place at the most surreal edges of experimental cinema but which seem right at home in an art gallery. Brent has spent years on a short film about Bas Jan Ader’s last days before he disappeared in a small boat in the Atlantic in 1975, and the Stewarts demonstrate a deft understanding of the arbitrary boundaries that separate cinema and contemporary video art if only in their provocative disregard for those contextual borders.
The video is accompanied by a room-sized wooden shack that visitors can walk through in the Seed Space gallery. I presumed it was supposed to be the home of one or both of the protagonists in Runners – there is only one makeshift cot in the shack, but a nestlike stack of sticks and woven materials in a corner might also offer an adequate resting space. There’s a radio setup on a wooden desk complete with a microphone for shortwave broadcasting, and a vintage television set playing glowing-green night vision footage of a starry sky. The filmmaker – and one assumes an occupant of the shack – can be heard off camera filming what he believes is a UFO.
The place is decorated with all kinds of ephemera tacked and taped to the walls: pages from medical survival manuals, diagrams of primitive water filters, a diagram of the body’s major arteries, a vintage ad for a wood-burning stove, and a lesson on how to get around and climb over various types of fencing undetected. A book on the desk is open to a chapter about the ethics of cell cloning. A list on the wall offers an index of Department of Defense Identification Codes. The space immediately calls to mind the 10-by-12-foot Montana shack where Unabomber Ted Kaczynski plotted his letter bomb campaign and wrote his infamous manifesto.
The pair will continue their collaboration at Zeitgeist gallery in August. During that month’s First Saturday event, the Stewarts will show a new video called Freebird. Both the artists will also be on hand for a performance that will find them in the gallery, inside of the Barracuda from Runners, listening to Neil Young’s album Zuma in its entirety.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.