Bruce Nauman has to be one of the most underwhelming artists of the past century. Yet he is also one of the most eminent. Confirming this unlikely combo of dullness and significance is Basements—on display at the Douglas Cooley Gallery this winter—a selection of the artist's early videos from the late 1960s.
The gallery is sealed off with tinted glass doors. Inside, the walls are muted with gray. There are seven videos total—all are grainy and black and white, three larger-scale projections and four smaller pieces on monitors. All play on loop. Nauman has filmed himself alone in his studio; obnoxious sounds saturate the space as we watch him tune a violin, throw his back against a wall, throw a ball against the floor, step along a line of tape, and repeat, ad infinitum.
Chairs and benches are positioned throughout the gallery, suggesting we sit down and take it in. If you do so, and don't get it, or begin to doze, you might take solace in knowing that one of Nauman's biggest supporters, Leo Castelli—who also happened to be a huge art dealer in the 20th century—fell asleep while visiting the artist's studio to view his videos.
The work in Basements is from Nauman's early career, made while he was in his late 20s and often noted by critics for its precocious sophistication. He has since been the recipient of some mighty prestigious awards in the art world (the Golden Lion Award from the Venice Biennale, the Larry Aldrich Award). His oeuvre is characterized by its wide range; his videos are usually placed alongside photos or sculptural works, though not in this show.
It's a deliberate choice, to isolate the videos, especially given their online availability these days (thanks, UbuWeb). What's the importance of seeing them in a gallery, then, rather than on a laptop? Stephanie Snyder, curator of Basements, said, "Many of Nauman's early 16mm and video-based works may be available on the internet, but that is no way to experience the work, only to reference it. Film is a medium, video is a medium, created in space, for space. These are palpable, phenomenological objects."
In short: It's to make you experience the tyranny of the work.
My own first encounter with Nauman's work infuriated me. It was a later piece (Mapping the Studio I), and consisted of a room with infrared video projected wall to wall. The footage is of Nauman's studio, and, besides a few mice and the occasional cat, it's empty. My irritated first impression was not unusual; in a 1969 performance Nauman did with Meredith Monk at the Whitney Museum, where they repeatedly threw themselves against the wall, a woman approached them in tears halfway through the performance, imploring them to stop.
So, where is the appeal of such frustrating work? Largely it comes down to the question of what being an artist means, and what it can mean. Nauman's work is often more fun to think about than to actually view; if you expose yourself to a lot of his work, it becomes much more interesting, as it takes the form of documents and observational data, gathered by a very inquisitive and ever-expanding mind.
"If you see yourself as an artist and you function in a studio... then the question goes back to what is art? And art is what an artist does, just sitting around the studio," Nauman once said. As a carry-away, this seems particularly relevant for a place like Portland—with its work-live spaces like the Everett Station Lofts—it's a city with little money, but a lot of space.