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Watching Kanye West’s video for “Bound 2,” it’s easy to imagine a stodgy old critic somewhere crossing Yeezus off his list for a Grammy nomination, more in sadness than in anger. It just isn’t a music video meant to please the gatekeepers of the music industry, much as the green-screen graphics and naked Kim Kardashian may have delighted music bloggers. But through a fairer lens—one not colored by judgment of Kanye’s character—the video shines just like the song does. It never occurred to me to give it a second look until I saw Annette Isham’s show at Hamiltonian Gallery.
Isham, a new young video artist in D.C., has turned a page since her last show at U Street NW’s Hamiltonian Gallery. She previously focused on juvenile stuff, making lo-fi videos in which she donned costumes to portray various characters from high school. These were funny and flippant, like Cindy Sherman by way of Lena Dunham. With her latest videos, she’s left high school far behind, traveling around the West and Southwest to create work that plays with high and low production values.
In four landscape works, Isham captures sweeping scenes from Western states, then stitches parts of different photos together in composites that she sets in lightboxes—fine-art collages whose seams are perfectly visible. The video pieces are set in these same landscapes, and the effect is a little like the “Bound 2” video: The moon in the background of “Utah and the Moon Scape” moves across the sky at the wrong speed for the foreground.
Although Isham recorded the dramatic Utah and Colorado backdrops onsite, she green-screens herself into the final video collages. For these she performs various stunts while wearing 13-inch platform heels, though in “Garden of the Gods” she wrestles longtime collaborator (and high school friend) Marissa McBride (while wearing the platforms), and in “Woman and Landscape” she walks on actual stilts. Although there’s a Matthew Barneyesque quality to Isham’s athletics, they’re offset by the awkward balancing act.
That’s one more high-low contradiction in a show that’s full of them—with none more obvious than the sharp contrast between what is possible in video production and editing and what Isham limits herself to here. It’s the green-screened people bouncing over a badly collaged landscape that make this work smart and likeable. Ditto “Bound 2.”
“From an Eighth to a Key”—a show of portraits by Larry Cook on view alongside Isham’s videos at Hamiltonian—struggles more directly with people and their depiction. His show consists of two series, one of young black men and one of older white men, that also have something of a collage aspect to them: The young black men are wearing post-doctoral robes, while the older white men are standing in front of backdrops that you might find at a go-go. See what he did there?
Cook’s show has a dual logic to it. White art impresario James Alefantis is standing in front of a painted lunar landscape that features a giant bottle of Patrón, while a young black man (Cook’s brother) is dressed up like a college dean on graduation day. The artist is daring us to look past what we are conditioned to see as an incongruity of class and race. (As a professor of photography at George Washington University and a rising young artist in D.C., Cook himself thwarts the sorry expectations that the nation attaches to young black men.)
Ultimately, Cook’s photographs make up a kind of self-portrait: When he went to go-gos, Cook shot images of people standing in front of the backdrops he uses for the “High Roller” series, according to the gallery. And while neither he nor the family members he enlisted for the “Regalia” series has the academic credentials to boast an eight-sided doctoral tam and robes with chevrons on the sleeves, Cook is not so far from it. (He received an MFA from George Washington University.)
But a photo-swap of white subjects and black subjects with white signifiers and black signifiers get us to only a superficial understanding of Cook. He teases us with some deeper issues regarding his feelings about his relatives, or men such as art dealer George Hemphill, who looks in “High Roller 2” like he just signed to Cash Money Records. The viewer gets a lot of information from the photos; they are excellent from a technical standpoint. But the juxtaposition may be too pat—or it lacks greater context. It certainly seems like a larger and fuller explanation is within Cook’s range.