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Video Rewind: Jonas and Pane in Parallel

Two dissimilar artists are paired at the CAMH.

Joan Jonas was the first person in the United States with a Sony Portapak video recorder. She bought it on a trip to Japan in 1970.

Gina Pane injured herself in ­performances to "shock viewers out of ­complacency."

Both artists were born in the 1930s; both were early adopters of video, worked in a variety of media and were pioneers of performance and body art. "Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston seeks to pair and compare the work of these "protofeminist" artists. Curated by Dean Daderko, the exhibition bisects the CAMH's main gallery, one side painted dark gray and featuring Jonas's work, the other painted white and featuring the work of Pane, who died in 1990. In spite of their importance, neither artist is a household name.

Gina Pane's Constat d'action for Azione Sentimentale, 1973.
Photo by Françoise Masson, courtesy of Anne Marchand and kamel mennour, Paris
Gina Pane's Constat d'action for Azione Sentimentale, 1973.

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Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

5216 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Museums

Region: Montrose

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"Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane"

Through June 30. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

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To really appreciate much of the show, you have to consider the social, political and technological contexts in which the art was made.

It's hard for most of us to remember a time when video wasn't easily and immediately accessible. Today you can shoot and upload multiple videos to Vine before your latte order is called. Early writing about video work by the critic Rosalind Krauss foretold the future, wondering, "What would it mean to say, 'The medium of video is narcissism.'" Although the content of YouTube would certainly lend credence to that statement, Krauss was responding to the glut of early work in which artists' fascination with the medium's abilities for self-observation dominated the content. There was a lot of early video in which people watched themselves watching themselves. It was awhile before video became just another artistic tool.

Jonas's installation at the CAMH, Glass Puzzle (1973-2000) includes video of Jonas and artist friend Lois Lane posing in a room. The black-and-white video projected on the wall is the original single-channel version of the piece. (Jonas made the installation version and included additional color video in 2000.) Jonas and Lane created the performance by mirroring each other's movements as they viewed live-feed video of their actions. Much of the video was shot from the monitor itself, creating disorienting reflections and layering. You wonder who they are posing for — themselves, each other or the unknown viewer.

I found a quote from Jonas about the work that mentioned the photographer Ernest J. Bellocq. (The exhibition catalog isn't out until later in the show's run. The CAMH's wall labels are offering viewers slightly more background information than in the last performance art show, but viewer-friendliness still has a ways to go.) Bellocq's photographs were posthumously shown at MoMA in 1970 when photographer Lee Friedlander discovered his negatives. Bellocq worked in the early 20th century and photographed New Orleans's Storyville prostitutes in contrived poses and with props like masks, part of some unknown narrative. Less obviously sexual, the self-conscious poses of Jonas's Glass Puzzle hint at a similarly odd but unrevealed narrative. Lane's face is occasionally obscured, not with a mask but with a postcard of what looks like the Step Pyramid of King Djoser.

In her 1976 video work Good Night Good Morning, the artist greets the camera upon waking and before going to bed. We see her in various states of alertness and in various kinds and stages of dress and undress as she greets us with "good morning" or "good night." It's not an obsessive daily chronicle, just something filmed over three different periods of time in New York and Nova Scotia. Video made it possible for Jonas to just turn the camera on and off at will and work in this diaristic fashion. But although Jonas created it by talking to the camera by herself, the viewer changes it. Jonas is now addressing us.

The idea of mirrors and reflection runs throughout Jonas's work. She was originally a sculptor, and her early foray into performance is documented in the photograph Mirror Piece I (1969), in which a woman lying in the grass rests a tall, slender rectangular mirror across her thighs. She is hidden, the mirror creating a four-legged being. Jonas's Mirror Check (1970) will be performed at the CAMH. In the piece, the nude performer inspects her body with a small circular mirror while the audience is 30 feet away, viewing the woman viewing herself. (Performances begin May 4 and will be every Saturday at 2 p.m.)

Jonas's 1984 video Double Lunar Dogs has a nostalgic, early-MTV look to it. (In 1981, the CAMH presented an early installation and performance of the work.) Double Lunar Dogs is loosely based on Robert Heinlein's 1941 science fiction story "Universe," in which the inhabitants of a space ship that originally fled earthly apocalypse for a new planet have forgotten their origins. The ship has become their world. The video stars Jonas and Spalding Gray; Jonas is deadpan, while Gray wanders into manic goofiness. It's a meandering and sporadic narrative that could stand editing — some things in video art never change — but it effectively riffs on pop-culture, futuristic paranoia. It has a funky, homemade appeal; an all-knowing, creepy-looking character wears dryer-vent tubing over his arms for space-guy clothes and Jonas indulges in wonky green-screen special effects.

The more recent 2010 installation Reading Dante III dominates Jonas's show. It's a decidedly multilayered, multimedia work. As in Glass Puzzle, video is projected onto walls or made object-like by showing it on a monitor. There are wall drawings and videos of the artist drawing as well as videos of performances. It's fascinating to see a 40-plus-year span of Jonas's work and how it has evolved in this recent piece. I like the imaginative and immersive nature of the Dante installation, but somehow it never reaches critical mass for me. It remains a collection of interesting parts.

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