tAMPA — There have been many good exhibitions at area museums and galleries, but the best I have seen is "Stagecraft" at University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum. I surprise myself in saying this because it's primarily composed of video, four of them, and that is not my favorite genre. Video art is usually interesting, even entertaining, but I am often flummoxed by what it means. Its visual appeal can be trumped by an obscurity in the point being made. For me.
David Louis Norr, who curated "Stagecraft," gathered works that have a strong theatrical element but use it as a starting point rather than a main point and are dense with originality and creativity without intimidating us with them.
My biggest plaudits go to the extraordinary You Make Me Iliad by Mary Reid Kelley, a tour de force of words and staging in a video form sometimes called neonarration. Kelley is a young visual artist, actor and writer, and her ability to combine those talents is nearly seamless. She has made a splash with her intricate narrative poems she acts out on sets she creates in grisaille, which means nothing but black, white and gray tones. She plays multiple roles costumed in black and white, her face and body also painted so.
The story takes place in 1918 Belgium during Germany's World War I occupation. The main characters are a young German soldier and a young Belgian woman who has been forced into prostitution at a German-sponsored brothel. He is full of naive ambition to write an epic poem based on his experience and wants to use the young woman as its heroine. She is full of irony about his aspirations and bitterly denounces his presumptions. Rebuffed, he returns to the battlefield and dies from gassing.
You Make Me Iliad is primarily written and rhymed in heroic couplets using a meter based on Homer's Iliad, leaning heavily on Alexander Pope's English version of it in the 18th century with a bit of Shakespearean iambic pentameter as well. Sounds really cerebral, but the outcome is a rhythmic, sometimes hypnotic flow. Kelley's command of language is dazzling, both clever and sophisticated. It begins with the title, which is also a line said by the prostitute, playing with "Iliad" to convey the literary theme and also her disgust ("You make me ill"). These literary appropriations and highbrow puns pop up in almost every line. Such as: "Scribbling while Rome cremates / And rendering unto Seizure what I burn / For from the Ashes, are reputations Urned."
She interrupts the narrative with stop motion animation, transforming the text into a visual element and reinforcing the synergy between words and images. She also includes an amusing musical interlude in which a medical officer lines up the men for a venereal disease inspection. The officer is played by a woman who sings an operatic waltz titled Roll Back the Foreskin.
The sets and costuming are as stylized as the language, invoking the decadent, demoralized artistic era that emerged during the Weimar Republic, after Germany's defeat, referencing filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and painters such as Max Beckmann.
Beyond its artistry and entertainment value as historical narrative, You Make Me Iliad contemplates the pretensions and follies of all war, including both conquerors and victims in its assessment. It also celebrates the porous nature of language, how we can manipulate it for our own purposes, aesthetic or otherwise.
You Make Me Iliad is reason enough to visit CAM's "Stagecraft," but the other videos also offer much. The signature work is Buster by Kate Gilmore, commissioned by USF. Gilmore is a rising star in the art world, and having her in this show debuting a new work is a coup. She is best known as a video artist. In most of her past scenarios, she puts herself, always well-dressed, in an absurd situation requiring physical effort for escape. In one, for example, she stands on rubble as two men hack at the pile and she struggles to stay vertical.
For Buster, at CAM, she stands on a broad set of risers painted gray, the steps lined with ceramic vessels. To reach the bottom of the steps, she must destroy each row of the jars which, when smashed, ooze purple and white paint. As the saying goes, to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs, and what is created in this destruction is the installation from the video, littered with shards and random paint drips.
Brian Bress' Creative Ideas for Every Season is both hilarious and moving. The protagonist-narrator, wearing a cropped gray wig, resembles revered minimalist painter Agnes Martin, also famous for her writings that are simple and cryptic at once, like the Eastern mysticism she practiced.
The narrator is seated in a cardboard car set in a surrealistically drawn landscape. She talks in Martinesque quotes that have a sense of portentousness but seem more about the character describing her attempts to empty her mind and repudiate her imagination. Her imagination is, of course, in full flower as a parade of strange characters begins to inhabit the car with her: a mouthless creature who, she says, "asks a lot of questions for someone with no mouth"; one made of yarn who becomes a stone temporarily at her request ("Is that better?"); one made up of wooden beads (who tells her it isn't healthy when she eats one); and the only human, a mechanic played by Bress who emerges from her dashboard. He, too, has plenty to say, most of it text from a craft book he has found about wreathmaking titled Creative Ideas for Every Season. He reads (through false teeth), "Symmetry in circular format is predictable, therefore less pleasurable," which could be shorthand for the video. Our narrator in her blighted landscape creates in spite of herself. And, as she says of the process, "Sometimes the best things happen when you're alone."
Greyzone, Deville Cohen's video in three acts, is intriguing and full of ideas, too. My take on its use of photocopies and the office supplies that alter them or piece them together is to suggest them as metaphors for our reliance on secondhand or thirdhand experience or information to stand in for the real thing.
Gee, that sounds heavy.
Not at all. The male actors wear heels too small for their feet, held together with tape, as they labor to collect markers from trees and pushpins from cliffs, then stuff them in handbags, in a gender-spoofing shopping spree. The "plot" is rather convoluted, involving, among other things, sawing a fake brain in half.
"Stagecraft" ends Sept. 10, so go sooner not later. Prepare yourself, too, for the video experience, which asks you to sit for a while rather than move from work to work as you would at an exhibition of paintings or sculpture. You'll need at least an hour to see them all. But since the museum's free, you can return to take it in during several sittings.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.