Brian Bress' video portrait Infinite Man is actually of a woman, even though that woman wears a Gene Kelly look-alike mask and circles around for ten minutes in front of tens of identical male faces. Bress made the mask and painted the backdrop before he asked his girlfriend to appear in the piece.
“It seemed to undermine the idea, to have her there,” inside the sea of men, he says. Now, at least to him, Infinite Man has become her. “When I see the video, I picture Britt kneeling on a rotating platform inside a head that's completely dark and think of her telling me she used every meditation skill she'd learned to stay focused.”
Nearly all the video portraits in “Under Performing,” Bress' current exhibition at Cherry and Martin gallery, started that way, as eccentric collages, costumes, sets or vague ideas he pieced together before deciding who his portrait would be of. The complications of that approach are exactly what interested him: “Is it still a portrait if I put a mask on someone and tell them how to act?”
Bress' two previous solo exhibitions experimented with control in a different way, or more often, with lack of control. They featured hectic images and goofy, self-effacing films in which Bress appeared itching and uncomfortable in collaged body suits, scruffy as a miner with a speech impediment, or picking at an oozing zit. “Dad, I don't wanna go to my room,” said a red-suited man in one film, after squishing himself beneath a mattress.
These works felt like the stream-of-consciousness of a YouTube connoisseur, who's absorbed as many teen vlog and South Park clips as John Waters' films. But it's always that: stream-of-consciousness. “In the past all the work has pointed inward,” Bress says. “I wanted to interact with other people and to figure out how to be subtle, less manic and not to ask for a laugh at every juncture.”
When you walk into “Under Performing,” the first thing you see is Bress' 19-minute film, Creative Ideas for Every Season. He made it in 2010, before making any of his video portraits, and hired an actor, a woman with stringy hair and a wistful straight-face, to pretend to drive through a collage of a desert landscape while the puppet-like characters that usually populate Bress' films appeared as if in her imagination. She speaks clearly (even when saying existentially absurd things, like “I've taught myself not to think”), while the other characters bumble (“um, uh . . . I'm tired. Tired, no, tired and hungry”).
This film does what the eight silent video portraits in the next room, all playing on framed, three-and-a-half foot monitors, do even better. It brings together two poles that have easily coexisted in art-making since the 1970s, when “over-saturation art,” or art about feeling lost in a maze of TV, ads, films and other media, became almost rampant. The one pole, the bad taste pole, led to figures like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who would adopt cartoon personas and perform in infantile skits that involved flailing limbs and frantic soundtracks. Then there was the good taste pole, where artists like Sherrie Levine or, later, Laurie Simmons and Richard Hawkins, would make seductive, subtly subversive collages from fashion ads or celeb headshots (Levine once pasted models in evening wear into busts of presidents). The bad taste pole felt indulgent because it was abject, while the good taste pole felt indulgent because it perpetuated commercial ideas of beauty even as it criticized them.
In Bress' video Pair, a ten-minute monochrome loop, abject and seductive converge. Two topless figures wear thick foam masks that make them look like Muppets with delicately torn pieces of paper laid on top, and they slowly turn toward and away from each other. Bress chose as his subjects two friends, Justin and Cara. “I would have liked to use an actual couple, but Cara's boyfriend has weird, asymmetrical chest hair,” says Bress, while these two had perfectly smooth, silky skin. Because the camera spends such a long time focused on their obscured faces, the videos begin to feel more and more earnest and desperate to get through and become a “real” portrait of the people Bress has so thoroughly masked.