THE DOROTHY LEMELSON Innovation Studio sits at the end of a long marble entrance hall in the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design, PNCA’s recently renovated historic federal building on NW Broadway. When I ask the security guard sitting at the information desk where the gallery might be, she has no idea what I’m talking about, and has never heard of Bruce Nauman. “Okay,” I say, “I’m just going to—” and motion down the hall. She nods, as if entrusting me with the entire building. I feel empowered.
The Bruce Nauman Language Body exhibition collects 15 of the artist’s pieces spanning the nearly four decades of his influential career. Among them: a screen-printed record sleeve from 1969, a pair of hulking cast-iron crossbeams from 1987, and a 1986 VHS tape playing on loop. The show’s titular pieces are three inkjet prints from Nauman’s 2006 Infrared Outtakes series, presenting his body twisted and pulled in different ways, exposed to security camera-style infrared light. The Infrared Outtakes were made using photographs Nauman took in 1968, which were themselves based on sketches he’d made of various facial expressions represented by lips. Then, in 2007, he transferred the infrared expressions back into drawings once more for his Infrared Outtakes and Soft Ground Etchings shows—the work reaching a momentary, but perhaps not final, cyclical rest. Only the inkjet print infrared photographs are in Language Body, so there’s a sense of iceberg tips staring out at you from the wall. Each piece expands outward into history, however secretly to the uninitiated.
I have the gallery to myself as I look at the show, so the main score in the gallery is the echoing of a Nauman video piece, Violent Incident, in which the dialogue is “Fucking cunt, don’t you ever!” amid scuffling sounds and cries of outrage. Violent Incident was originally presented in 1986, but later reimagined for the Tate Modern as a video wall of four pairs (the original man and woman, a reversal of the roles, and two same-sex couples) recreating the same dinner argument, playing out of sync with one another in a rolling wave of chaotic aggression. The 28-second scene loops for 30 minutes until abruptly there’s silence, and I look over to a green screen of credits and acknowledgements. Then the video begins again.
Influenced by Andy Warhol, Nauman intends for his pieces to exist through time, easily abandoned and better for being returned to. Although I wish more explanations of these pieces were readily available, Language Body is in a perfect spot for a small but relevant retrospective—a school of art where students can easily wander in and out of the gallery between classes. There’s a lot for a student or otherwise interested person to find in here. There’s a piece for a lithographer, an illustrator, a photographer, or a filmmaker, and despite the variety of approaches present in Language Body, they all still speak to Nauman’s central theme of communication and deconstruction of meaning.