"THERE ISN'T A THEMATIC THREAD or conceptual idea at work," explains Gus Van Sant of Cut-ups, his current exhibit at PDX Contemporary, "except perhaps 'people.' There [are] a lot of 'people' in the images." The people he's referring to are all actors and actresses, and the images in question are amalgamated casting photos shot by the renowned filmmaker between 1988 and 2001. For each image, Van Sant chopped and layered multiple scanned Polaroids, resulting in deformed multi-humans. I'd compare it to an indiscriminate surgeon on a battlefield, but that feels too violent and inexact, and anyway Van Sant doesn't seem to see it that way: "[It's] a little like the kids' game Heads, Bodies, Legs, and Tails, where each person takes turn drawing different parts of a creature, and it isn't revealed until you unfold the paper."
While these photos don't fall far from the film-career tree, Van Sant's history as a fine artist is long and relatively understated, often limited to a few short lines in bio pages. Since attending Rhode Island School of Design in the early '70s to study painting (ultimately majoring in film), Van Sant says he has made still art "a lot, but [sporadically]." He explains, "I used to paint the inside of Macheezmo Mouse restaurants back in the '80s, and some paintings are [still] hanging in the Heathman Hotel. [They're] landscapes of deserts with things flying in the sky, houses flying, and ropes, and people flying in the sky." The filmmaker has all but silently created these still works for over 40 years, showing them infrequently—their importance becomes clearer when similar motifs bleed into his film imagery.
For instance, there's a split-second scene in My Own Private Idaho sandwiched between cuts of River Phoenix and the Idaho countryside: The top portion of a barn drops from the sky, splintering apart on a highway. When asked about interpretations of this repeated image, Van Sant responds, "[It might subconsciously relate] to leaving home a lot when I was growing up, because the family moved around a lot." Of the motif's origin, he explains, "I painted images of smashing houses when I was painting in the '70s."
And what leads Van Sant to PDX Contemporary isn't so much the crash, but what I believe could best be called the repair of this ever-splintering home. The piece "boys combined" shows a twentysomething male with slicked-back hair. His eyes are covered in an eye mask-shaped cutout of another subject's stare, and over his mouth and chin is an oval cutout of boy lips. While the overlays act like a disguise, the base image begins to appear as a shell, suggesting the face as the true mask. In "clown josh," Van Sant creates a figure that looks neither male nor female, with a crude patch of mouth retrofitted over the base subject's own (reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker).
To put these combined photos into the Van Sant canon of still images, where things are classically uprooted to a broken end, is to mature them to a place where the splinters come back together. If the smashing house can be read as a symbol of the stuttering location of Van Sant's childhood, then the images at PDX Contemporary point to a unified, though "multi-faced," sense of home—a home that is as horrifying as it is beautiful and ambiguous, manifested as Van Sant looks back through single moments in his career and mashes them whole.