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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 101-104

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Mystical Cosmetics
Oliver Herring, Stephen Dean, Berni Searle

Elisabeth Kley


Oliver Herring, Cleveland Center for Contemporary Arts, Ohio, September13-November 25, 2001; Stephen Dean, Henry Urbac Architecture, New York, May 15-June 29, 2001; Berni Searle, Axis Gallery, New York, September 11-October 27, 2001.

Applying pigment to the body is an age-old practice whose mean ing has evolved over time. From the transformation promised in initiation rites to the spectacle of Chinese opera to the entertainment offered by a clown, artificial coloring means different things in different cultures. It can disguise or reveal. It offers the possibility of changing one's skin, of mutating into another form. It can lie, tell the truth, or simply amuse.

In Oliver Herring's 28-second video, Pure Sublimation, everyday space is articulated through painted bodies engaged in an illusion of movement and dance. A man dressed in jeans floats on his back into the screen a few inches above a sidewalk. Suddenly, his clothing, skin, and hair turn glowing red. He jumps up and falls over a bright pink car, and some other colored characters join in, with bodies and clothing of yellow, pink, and white. A blue station wagon, a red bicycle, and a lime green truck appear. A green female bodybuilder in a matching green dress and bouffant wig emerges from the truck. More painted people flash across the screen, arranged in various acrobatic tableaux. Vehicles move backwards and forwards. Enormous pieces of white paper jump around in the street, then come together to cover the screen, leaving a torn hole that closes. The white disappears, revealing a young man reclining in the center of the group, like Christ taken down from the cross. In an intimately psychedelic finale, everyone squirts him with globs of paint, and all are splattered, as if their rambunctiously colored bodies have finally burst their boundaries.

Herring's videos are comprised of still shots in which performers are posed in various combinations. Spliced together, the images flash along in rapid succession, mimicking the illusory action of flipbooks—the earliest form of moving pictures. The figures jump about to syncopated soundtracks like vaudeville performers in a slapstick routine, or [End Page 101] [Begin Page 103] characters in a comedy of colors no longer confined to objects. Joyfully referencing Busby Berkeley and Bob Fosse, Herring puts on a low-budget spectacle with a cast of friends and neighbors and sets of painted cardboard and ordinary streets. Everyday bodies, some younger, some older, some beautiful, some homely, all unite in tender wildness at the end.

The French artist Stephen Dean's sensitive paintings of colored rectangles on newspaper were exhibited at the Drawing Center in 1995, but his first New York one-person show did not take place until June 2001, at Henry Urbach Architecture. An installation of paperback books with polychrome pages piled in brick-like columns on the floor of the gallery's first room seemed a natural outgrowth of Dean's early work. Its quiet formality hardly prepared one for Pulse, the overwhelming film projected in the next room.

Shot on location in India, Pulse is a documentary study of Holi, the festival of spring. Dressed in white, friends and relatives gather outside to spend the day spraying each other with colored pigments and water. The film begins with a distant view of a crowd thronging into a courtyard. Small puffs of pastel powder erupt above their heads, like smoke from a magical volcano. The camera moves closer, joining the jostling celebrants as they pull off each other's color-streaked clothes, their shiny bodies dyed in various hues. The soundtrack alternates periods of silence with random calls and blowing horns that build to a crescendo of shouting and drums. During silences, the lens is sometimes immersed in showers of pigment, and slowly evolving monochrome clouds of pink, red, and orange fill the screen. A boy perched on a wall tosses a dusting of pale blue powder over...


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