Art Seen: Chicago

ERNIE GEHR // FILM STUDIES CENTER

by S. Nicole Lane

“This is a tough program,” quipped Ernie Gehr at the Film Studies Center before screening his latest digital works in HD at the University of Chicago. Gehr, a Structuralist filmmaker who challenges traditional cinema, presented five films: Photographic Phantoms (2013), Picture Taking (2010), Winter Morning (2013), Auto Collider XVIII (2011), and A Commuter’s Life (What a Life!) (2014). I knew what I was in for—I had just prepped myself two days before by re-watching Serene Velocity (1970), but nevertheless, the accordance from Gehr was appreciated.

Ernie Gehr. Bon Voyage. Exhibition view at _ Vue d'exposition au Centre d'Art Contemporain Genève, 2015. Photography by _ Photo Annik Wetter

Ernie Gehr. Bon Voyage. Exhibition view at / Vue d’exposition au Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, 2015. Photography by Photo Annik Wetter.

The avant-garde filmmaker does not create works that traverse through time in a traditional narrative sense. Rather, he produces pieces that emulate a type of Greenbergian Formalism—the identity crisis of modernism, moving away from representation—to focus on perception, light, motion, and technical aesthetics. In the 1970s, Gehr began working closely with the Structuralist film movement and produced work that celebrated monotony, visual density, and the ordinary. Nourished by everyday images, Gehr has continued this observance in more recent works, departing from celluloid and availing the digital medium.

The screening began with Photographic Phantoms, a piece that engaged the viewer in negative and positive images of family photographs dating back to the early twentieth century. The incessant flashing of photographs presented quite the challenge on optics. Despite this, my fervent curiosity for what photograph may appear next, encouraging me to remain optically aware and not allow the images to be reduced to their formal flickering. A baby being held by a grandmother, blurred figures walking on a street, German storefronts, and fashionable society members all emanated from the screen as the sound of a locomotive accompanied the visuals.

Ernie Gehr, still from PICTURE TAKING, 2010, 3-monitor video installation  Copyright © artdaily.org

Ernie Gehr, still from PICTURE TAKING, 2010, 3-monitor video installation Copyright © artdaily.org

In the following piece, Picture Taking, exploration of the digital medium was much more prevalent, and Gehr maintained this process throughout the subsequent pieces. The camera, perched high—30 floors to be exact—is stationed by a window, capturing a slanted composition of the street below. Voices of children, foreign language, and incomprehensible murmuring, are juxtaposed against the fluid figures. The individual characteristics and identities are concealed—however, the viewer gains knowledge from a shadow that serves as an appendage to the concrete figure. Near the end of the film, I noticed a man in the left middle of the screen—he was passing out yellow flyers. Uninterested pedestrians passed him by—probably avoiding eye contact—but some, generously took the flyer. I was compelled to continue watching this man, now more interested than ever, as some subjects stopped and others turned away.

The screen turned black and the film ended.

Gehr challenges the viewer to endure the repetitiousness of everyday life and when the viewer least expects it, they are rewarded. Picture Taking offers a similar uniformity, serving as a vehicle into a pensive and introspective process. The audience fades in and out of hallucinations. This is exactly how cinema should be.

Ernie Gehr. Bon Voyage. Exhibition view at _ Vue d'exposition au Centre d'Art Contemporain Genève, 2015. Photography by _ Photo Annik Wetter

Ernie Gehr. Bon Voyage. Exhibition view at / Vue d’exposition au Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, 2015. Photography by Photo Annik Wetter

The formal purity that interests Gehr stems from his filmmaking ideology of possessing a 3D world and constructing it in 2D. Although on a 2D screen, Winter Morning, depicts a three dimensionality through its utilization of color shifts and layering of similar shots in a snow covered New York neighborhood. There is a tension between the 3D and 2D plane due to the invitation of sound between Gehr, his neighbors, and the sound amongst the snow. Akin to Gehr’s previous pieces, this work rejects narrative, embraces pulsating intervals of light, abrupt shifts in angle, and features aggressive compositions. Winter Morning explores a variety of saturated hues and continues with the technique of filters. The trajectory of Gehr’s new work is mediocrely imbued with programmed software, which is poles apart from the last piece in the screening, A Commuters Life (What a Life!). The closing film consists of a train ride from New York to Boston, mirrored and turned vertically on screen. Delusion and rhythm are the focus of the film, featuring a thawed vision of twilight, obscure bridges, power lines, and steeples stretching across the screen.

Working exclusively digitally since 2001, Gehr continues to bring forth tough and tenacious cinematic experiences. The importance of production and postproduction are still prevalent in his recent pieces. Overall, Gehr’s works, such as, A Commuters Life (What a Life!), remain authentic to the Structuralist movement from the ‘70s which he vastly contributed to. Others, for example, Winter Morning, exemplify the exploration of modern digital cinema where negative filters, overlapping of shots, and palpable sound are present. The range of destination for Gehr’s films constitutes his interest in discovering the exceptionalism of conventional life.


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Ernie Gehr’s first solo exhibition, Bon Voyage, is on view at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève in Geneva until April 26th, 2015.

S. Nicole Lane is an artist and writer based in Chicago.

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