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It can be hard to know where to look when confronted with the dizzying array of movement found in the choreography of Merce Cunningham. As opposed to the framing devices of classical ballet and early modern dance, which draw the eye to particular points of focus, “unfocus,”or simultaneity, is a Cunningham hallmark; as the critic Douglas Crimp writes, this “requires the audience to make choices about the dances presented to them.”1
Over the course of his four-decade long collaboration with the choreographer, Charles Atlas—serving, in some ways, as a proxy audience member—deftly translated this central element of Cunningham’s work to both film and video. A good example is the ghostly Fractions 1 (1978), in which Atlas uses four separate video cameras (three black and white, and one color) to film a dance performed at the Cunningham Company’s Westbeth studio in New York. After some initial shots, one camera pulls back to reveal four stacked monitors sharing the floor with eight dancers.
With quick cuts, the video alternates between black and white and color. What is seen in the dance space is augmented by what is shown on the monitors: close ups of dancers’ faces, divergent perspectives of the featured dance, and accompanying sections of it that are not being featured, ostensibly taking place just out of the frame.
The effect is one of focusing in, but also one of disorientation. With the presence of the monitors in the lower half of the space, the eye splinters. Dancers’ bodies become irregularly segmented, with additional limbs and faces. The camera zooms in on one of the black and white feeds and suddenly we are no longer sure where we’re situated or what part of the dance—main, or auxiliary, or if such terms even apply—we’re being shown.
Throughout his career, Atlas has displayed a similar sensitivity with a diverse group of other choreographers (beyond Cunningham, a few include Michael Clark, Yvonne Rainer, and Karole Armitage), artists, and musicians; one indication of this is the incredible range of his work.
At A New Rhythm—a group show that was organized to coincide with a 10-day long festival, generously spearheaded by the artist Paul Pescador, which brought Charles Atlas to Los Angeles for a packed schedule of screenings and talks at locations all over the city—Fractions 1 was paired with a later dance video, Jump (1984), made in collaboration with the French choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Where the former work is spare and conceptually driven, Jump is a wild escapade, set to New Wave music, that takes place in a kind of atomic café by the sea; dancers appear as punk mutants, in colorful face paint, pavonine hairdos, and sculpted costumes. Here Atlas is working less to represent the dynamics of dance as it’s performed on stage (as in Fractions 1) and instead enjoying—with abandon—the full spatial freedom of film. In one exhilarating shot, we’re catapulted from the dance floor to a balcony above it, only to follow a young punk down a narrow set of stairs in a tight close-up as he sneers and gestates directly into the camera.
Atlas’s work held prominence in A New Rhythm (his videos were the first thing one saw walking in the door and the obvious catalyzing force of the show), a compact exhibition set in small gallery that also moonlights as its proprietor’s apartment. As a result, dance was the overriding frame of reference for the rest of the works on display; or, more generally, the body in motion.
Across the wall from the videos, and perhaps most explicitly related, was a spectral, erasure-filled, gray-toned watercolor on canvas by Silke Otto-Knapp: Seascape (third movement) (2013). The piece depicts Yvonne Rainer in a prone position, performing the dance of its title. With its layers of pentimenti, it seemed to assert—similarly to Fractions 1—the impossibility of representing live performance with a single, unified image.
Nestled around the corner in a bedroom, a recent painting (one of two) by Benjamin Carlson presented a more optical choreography. Based off a Memphis Group design, the untitled work is comprised of frieze-like clusters of gessoed triangles and squares, alternating in size and arrangement across the deep blue dye of the canvas. Neon undertones and outlines (which echoed the palette of Jump) cause the shapes to leap from their moorings, projecting energy and motion.
By contrast, Nancy Lupo’s pet/child-scaled undulating couch sculpture, Tuxedo Feeder (2014), was the most weighted thing in the room. Coated in black and white quinoa and epoxy, it includes steel inset animal food dishes and floats somewhere between surrealist oddity and luxury item. Still, the sculpture elicited all forms crouching and bending over from its viewer for inspection and its miniature scale insisted on a somatic awareness.
Surely it’s often enough that one is prompted to consider the body when viewing art, but the subtle revelation of this exhibition, and much more so the Atlas In LA festival, was encountering variations on the way movement and dance can be depicted across media, apart from live performance. And in the case of Atlas, there are few others who have done so with as much rangy charm and imagination.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 1.