There have long been many ways of using time-based media for functions other than storytelling. There have been fewer attempts to combine the moving image with the static one.
Some Atlantans will recall Michael Dines’s insertion of video sequences into or alongside paintings of video stills a decade or so ago. It was evocative enough when the video still was from a landscape seen from a moving car. It was even more thought-provoking when the painting was of a tree, and the inserted video was a portrayal of “nothing happening” to the same tree—except, of course, that everything was happening. Sara Hornbacher subsequently put long video sequences of buildings into formal picture frames, in which the unmoving images, like paintings or photographs, remained still until something in the image moved.
Joseph Guay’s combinations of video and photography, at Jackson Fine Art through October 23, approach this problem differently. Apart from the details of a well chosen background, photographic portraiture typically gives us the outward appearance of persons, but nothing of life as they experience it. Guay’s Memory Portraits, on the other hand, combine a conventional large-scale black-and-white portrait with a 40-to-60-minute video of the subject’s daily life, taken by the subject with a camera provided by Guay.
This way we gain access to their world, but not necessarily through their eyes: One of the subjects, Vashaun Jones, is blind. (Guay titles his pieces with the subject’s name.) Curiously, due to being blind, Jones’s video is more composed and stable than the video made by the more visually aware subjects. Jones’s work provides a more honed-in, focused approach, while the video images by interior designer Andrew Harris tend to dart, shudder, and generally replicate the curious eye scouting for detail.
It’s difficult to try to pick out distinct visual styles from the videos made by a drag queen, a paraplegic, a transsexual, an indie recording artist, and a Guantanamo Bay border patrol Marine. (The soldier is the only subject made completely anonymous.) It is, however, endlessly fascinating to contrast the brooding drama of a U.S.-Cuba border surveillance with a child’s birthday party attended by one of the camera-holders—I’ll let you decide who. That it wouldn’t be obvious is the point here.
We still need Guay’s biographical notes to understand the meaning of the portraits and the videos alike. However much information we think we can extract from the still and moving images, we need some initial context to make sense of what we are seeing beyond the obvious markers of blindness, paraplegia, and characteristic personal styles. A picture is only worth a thousand words if we already have the words that let us begin to understand it.
Guay doesn’t make the mistake of assuming his material will explain itself, though his supplemental material is sensibly kept off the gallery wall. His venture is an extraordinary attempt to give us insight into the sorts of personal worlds with which most gallery visitors never come into contact. This ought to provide starting points for further thought on many, many levels.