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  •  REVIEW: JONAS MEKAS: FRAGMENTS OF PARADISE

      Andy Warhol, myself, c. 1974.

From SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF ANDY WARHOL in Jonas Mekas: Fragments of Paradise
       Courtesy of Maya Stendahl Gallery
      Andy Warhol, myself, c. 1974. From SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF ANDY WARHOL
    Avant Granddad

    In "Fragments of Paradise" a poetic vision is captured in film by the legendary and influential Jonas Mekas.

    By DEBORAH GARWOOD
    Offoffoff.com


    The legendary filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas continues to surprise and delight at the ripe old age of 85. Through May 14, Maya Stendahl Gallery presents an ingenious installation of both vintage and new works that is beautiful and engaging. No one who's interested in time-based media should miss it. Mekas's optimism — his faith in the power of film as an affirmation of human vitality as well as a vehicle of resistance to oppressive forces of history — is hard won. If this show doesn't lift your spirits, you must already be vibrating on his wavelength.

    JONAS MEKAS
    Exhibition: Fragments of Paradise.
    Works by: Jonas Mekas.
     SCHEDULE
    March 3 - May 14, 2005

    Gallery: Maya Stendhal Gallery
    545 W. 20th St.
    New York NY
    Phone: (212) 366-1549

      
    In retrospect, it seems that Mekas was destined to create a bridge between European avant garde film and the artistic community of 1960s New York. Born in Lithuania in 1922, he emigrated to the US and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1948, glad to be alive after surviving personal horrors during WWII. Mekas has said that he's in every frame of his films; they're his way of being in the world and touching it at the same time. Film became a way of appreciating, almost literally, every second of his life. He bought a Bolex movie camera — a type powered by a hand wound spring — and began the practice of what he called "single frame filming." That meant he'd load the camera with a roll of movie film, some 2 1/2 minutes' worth, but shoot it ever so slowly: one frame at a time. Projected at slower than the normal 24 frames per second, the objects, people, and landscapes are seen in a kind of animation effect. When he began to screen these films in the early 1950s, his technique was likened to the vision of Cubist painting. But he didn't feel he truly got the hang of the Bolex until about 1965 — just in time for the Vietnam - hippies — Beatles era. Artists and celebrities began to find Mekas and be filmed: John and Yoko, Jacqueline Kennedy, Salvador Dali — the list goes on.

      From my window, Cassis, 1966. From NOTES FOR JEROME. in Jonas Mekas: Fragments of Paradise
       Courtesy of Maya Stendahl Gallery
      From my window, Cassis, 1966. From NOTES FOR JEROME.
    Mekas's original style of filmmaking was very underground at the time; painting ruled. But he met the collision of art and public personalities relatively head on, unlike more private artist-filmmakers such as Joseph Cornell and Rudy Burckhardt. Mekas believed so strongly in the ideology of avant garde film, and even commercial films of soulful quality, that he elected to take on a public role in order to advance it. Among other things, he pioneered a column of film reviews for the Village Voice and started a collection of films, which has become Anthology Film Archives today.

    Not only was Mekas a pioneer of the personal "film diary" form; he had a genius for coming up with presentational devices that complemented the ideas embedded in the media. Film artists of today, after the generational layer of Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman, are his heirs — and they are too numerous to mention. This exhibition is living proof that an argument can be made against allowing Warhol and Nauman to constitute a point of origination for the kinds of art film presented today. Once this firewall to the past is removed, it's clear that both of them are quite indebted to Mekas, although they traded his sense of joy and attentive detachment for something much colder. Warhol, in fact, cut his filmmaking teeth sitting on the floor of Mekas's loft, watching his films. They became friends.


      
    Visions of Elvis and John Lennon flicker by, along with travelogues where the scenery changes at unusual speeds.  

      
    Fragments of Paradise presents examples of the artist's varied work in the mediums of film, video, slide projection, and stills from his movies. The main gallery contains several short films from the 1960s as well as videos created since 2000. Visions of Elvis and John Lennon flicker by, along with travelogues where the scenery changes at unusual speeds.

    Mekas has also valued the collaborative aspects of film. A work presented in a niche of the main gallery is an homage to Mekas from a film made by Virginie Marchand, entitled I killed myself all night long, Jonas please lend me a bicycle to become famous. A young woman lies on her back while a black curtain covering the lower half of her body moves, mysteriously and rhythmically. Even after you more or less figure out that there's a bicycle behind the curtain, the surrealistic eroticism of the mostly static scene exerts its force upon the attention. Your unconscious is watching the pretty lady have sex, while the machinery of the film rolls around and around to keep her in your mind's eye view.

    In a separate gallery, a work entitled Dedication to Fernand Leger plays on 12 video monitors arrayed in a circle on nice old white wooden chairs. The monitors depict the Mekas family over a period of seven years. This work takes its inspiration from Fernand Leger's 1933 remark that film might one day record a day in the life of a family, by some secret method, so that they would not be aware of the camera. Mekas took a number of liberties with Leger's idea, notably with respect to the time period recorded. But it's interesting that he liked the idea of executing Leger's idea for him, and that he did not consider Leger's notion of a secret method as surveillance.

      
      Film became a way of appreciating, almost literally, every second of his life.
      
    A new work from 2005 called Rillettes in an adjoining gallery is especially personal. Three walls of the room are festooned with Mekas's poetry in his own handwriting, while projections of cut off frames of film scroll continuously. A large display case in the center of the room is piled full of notebooks and memorabilia, attesting to friendships, conversations, and the rich ferment of ideas that nourished his work over many years. Bits of film litter the floor under this display like a ghost replica of the editing room. A text explains that rillettes are the cooked down scraps of meat left after an animal is butchered. Slow roasting turns them into a delicious spread for crusty bread. The bits of film on his floor reminded the artist that his mother made rillettes for the family when he was a boy, because food was too precious to waste when a farm animal was slaughtered to feed the family. Mekas let this association inspire him to mount a large number of his film scraps onto slide mounts, minting yet another permutation of the film medium around which he designed a thoughtful and intriguing installation.

    Every age conceives of dream worlds and utopias differently, and film was the 20th century's great medium. Mekas's work is deeply affecting in its intuitive play with time and modes of presentation. Instinctively, he finds ways to engage with the viewer's interior world. His poetic art and visual poetry belong in the larger context, not just of art, but of visual culture in the 20th century. As Fragments of Paradise shows, Mekas is still enthralled by the moving image as a means of personal expression in the 21st Century.

    MAY 4, 2005
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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