Art & Art History
Bruce Charlesworth: A Recent Project, Photographs, Video
In Bruce Charlesworth: A Recent Project, Photographs, Video, Gallery 400 organized the first Chicago exhibition of Bruce Charlesworth, an artist who works with photography, video, environmental constructions and carefully worded scripts. He is known for creating ambiguous, disquieting but entertaining narratives which rely on late 1940s and 50s Hollywood film noirs, Buster Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock, melodramatic detective novels and television situation comedies. Although many of Charlesworth ’s subjects and characters are borrowed from mass-media entertainment, his themes are very much those of the contemporary visual artist – irony, autobiography, composition, a complex and indirect structure of meaning, and shifting relations between levels of reality.
The Gallery 400 exhibition presents a sampler of Bruce Charlesworth ’s recent work. Mauna Loa, a 1983 installation reconstructed in Gallery 400, invoked the imminent eruption and ensuing terror caused by the Hawaiian volcano. Twelve cibachrome photographs from the Trouble series distilled many of Charlesworth ’s themes into individually charged images. As in all his work, the artist played the hapless, anxious anti-hero; the radio, the television, the convertible roadster, and the suburban house served as recurring icons in this world-out-of-whack. Three videotapes transported the viewer into a universe in which surveillance, interrogation, imprisonment, natural disasters, and changes in identity figured prominently.
Flyer: Bruce Charlesworth: A Recent Project, Photographs, Video
Lost Dance Steps, 1982
3/4 inch color videotape, sound, 21:00 min.
Mauna Loa, 1983
Mixed media installation.
3/4 inch color videotape, 21:00 min.
12 Cibachrome prints, 16 x 16 in.
Wrong Adventures, 1983
3/4 inch color videotape, sound, 21:00 min.
Bruce Charlesworth: A Recent Project, Photographs, Video is supported by the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art and Design’s College of Architecture, Art and Urban Planning.
This exhibition is also sponsored by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council.
Bruce Charlesworth: An Installation, Video, Photographs
Working with photography, video, environmental constructions and carefully worded scripts, the artist Bruce Charlesworth defies categorization. This Minneapolis resident creates ambiguous, disquieting but entertaining narratives which rely on late 1940s and 50s Hollywood film noirs, Buster Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock, melodramatic detective novels and television situation comedies. Although many of Charlesworth ’s subject and characters are borrowed from mass-media entertainment, his themes are very much those of the contemporary visual artist – irony, autobiography, composition, a complex and indirect structure of meaning and shifting relations between levels of sanity.
The Gallery 400 exhibition presents a sampler of Bruce Charlesworth ’s recent work; in each piece, the artist ’s presence is crucial. Mauna Loa, a 1983 installation, invokes the imminent eruption and ensuing terror caused by the Hawaiian volcano. Twelve cibachrome photographs from the Trouble series distill many of Charlesworth ’s themes into single charged images. As in all his work, the artist plays the hapless, anxious anti-hero; the radio, the television, the convertible roadster and the suburban house are recurring icons in this world-out-of-whack. Three videotapes gather the viewer into a universe in which surveillance, interrogation, imprisonment, natural disasters and changes of identity figure prominently.
When a student, Charlesworth was torn between acting and art. He ultimately opted for the latter, taking degrees in painting at the University of Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa. Filmmaking courses in graduate school helped keep his hand in the dramatic arts. Since moving to Minneapolis in 1976, the artist has managed to reactivate a stage career of sorts by annexing acting to his art-production.
Following in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, Charlesworth creates personae as a means of initialing a dialogue between the “truths” of art and the “realities” of life. While Duchamp and today ’s performance artists Eleanor Antin, Colette and other invent alter-egos in order to pose questions about the role of the artist vis-à-vis his or her work, society and matters of sexual identity, Charlesworth ’s characters embody the more basic, banal problem of simply living. In photo-narratives and video-performances, the artist plays the hapless everyman whose profession may be detective, escape artist or “crime suspect.”
Charlesworth ’s stories unfold disjunctively; a character is no sooner introduced than the action shifts abruptly in time or space. Yet even though vital information is always withheld and ambiguous and multiple interpretations are suggested, these are stories with one protagonist and a primary, dramatic storyline. A narrator, represented by written texts or as an off-camera interviewer, often enhances narrative coherence. The omissions enforce a condition of audience participation; the viewer makes assumptions about plot which vary from person to person and cannot be confirmed. Charlesworth ’s story-telling, then, leaves one entertained but disoriented, bemused but terrified at the latent disaster which lurks beneath ordinary experience.
Photography with captions is the primary story-telling vehicle in Charlesworth ’s first mature works. The adventures of gumshoe detective Eddie Glove (1976-79) unfold through a sequence of small, sepia-toned photographs. In this work and the thematically related Special Communiques, 1980, Charlesworth fabricates fictions for the camera. The artist joins a diverse group including Cindy Sherman, Duane Michaels, Lucas Samaras, Mac Adams and William Wegman who reject the prescription that photography must confront existing visual facts. Charlesworth the photography operates like a movie director, producer and editor – coaching actors, constructing sets and framing shots.
Video, a natural medium for narrative, became a central component in Charlesworth ’s art-making by 1980. Surveillance, the 1981 work screened at the 1983 Whitney Biennial, is a “classic” videotape. Ostensibly about two detectives on a hotel room stakeout, it is shot from one viewpoint and concerns the medium itself. Charlesworth ’s videotapes are carefully edited; like silent films, they often splice written texts between narrative segments. At the same time, they retain the immediacy and personal authenticity of performance art. Although he never acts except before his own camera, Charlesworth is essentially a performance artist.
Projectile and Wrong Adventures, the artist ’s recent major works, each feature an environmental installation activated by a videotape shot in the space. What began as set-building for photographic fictions becomes a prominent expressive medium in its own right. Natural disasters and unexplained appearances, disappearances and changes of identity take place against a background of exaggerated normalcy. Featuring what the artist describes as “suburban-tropical décor” with a vaguely 1950s flavor, the installations effectively create this atmosphere. Rooms are highly simplified and painted in unusual hues of salmon, yellow, purple and green. Furnishing is reduced to a few over-sized, brightly colored objects constructed by the artist. The result is somewhere between a stage-set and a remembered childhood home.
Two recent and important theme shows have brought Charlesworth ’s art to national attention. The Anxious Edge (1982), curated by Lisa Lyons for the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and The End of the World: Contemporary Visions of the Apocalypse (1983-84) at New York ’s New Museum both emphasized the fatalism and anxious intensity in artists ’ responses to our volatile times. Indeed, Charlesworth ’s characters operate as if disasters were imminent, or at least, as if anything could happen in lives they do not control. One never really learns why the escape artist in Lost Dance Steps (a 1982 video) is so paranoid but Projectile ’s survivalist clearly finds his worst fears realized in the devastation of his home. In Mauna Loa, a natural disaster gives form to the names contemporary dread.
Charlesworth ’s work, however, is not morbid; his characters persevere courageously, if sometimes aimlessly. Their predicaments are conceived with humor and whit. Charlesworth ’s recent Wrong Adventures: An Installation with Video has a happy ending. As usual, the story is complex, multi-layered and subject to endless interpretation. Through the Hamlet-like protagonist, Charlesworth explores themes of authoritarianism, obsessions, fear of intimacy and questions about how reality is perceived. Difficult predicaments are counterbalanced by the work ’s optimistic, science fiction tone. The luscious jungle scenes which alternate with oppressive interior shots ultimately herald a sunnier mental future for Charlesworth ’s alter-ego.
Bruce Charlesworth does not avoid the complexities of modern life. His art is a serious effort to define meaning in highly personal terms; through art, personal meaning becomes universal.
Laurel Bradley, Bruce Charlesworth: An Installation, Video, Photographs, October, 1984.
Lyon, Christopher, “Artist Captures Performance, Photography Trends.” Chicago Sun-Times, November 9, 1984, p. 3.
Bruce Charlesworth (born 1950) is an artist, writer and filmmaker. He is the writer of many scripts and short-fiction works, and is the director of the feature-length film Private Enemy-Public Eye. His work has been shown at the Musée National d ’Art Moderne in Paris, London ’s Tate Gallery, The American Film Institute, the Whitney Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, among many other museums and galleries. He is currently Assistant Professor of Film/Video/New Genres at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Charlesworth received a BA in Art from the University of Northern Iowa in 1972 and an MFA in Painting from the University of Iowa in 1975.