These performances grow out of questions like, "What happens when we stand Wood on his head like an object?" "What happens when we run a belt sander over a stack of paper?" "What happens when we drop tennis balls from the ceiling into boxes?" This art seemingly results from a level of boredom so extreme, it's become transcendent. "Answers to Questions: John Wood and Paul Harrison" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, curated by Toby Kamps, formerly of the CAMH and now the curator of modern and contemporary art at The Menil Collection, is the first U.S. museum survey of the artists' video work, and it's full of low-key absurdity and straight-faced slapstick.
Wood and Harrison's videos start out with drawings — spare schematics of what they want to happen — and maybe a brief written description. Some are developed into videos, and some aren't. Board (1993) is a very early work in which Wood and Harrison explore their "suspicion of dance." Dressed identically in black T-shirts and jeans, the pair — one tall, one short — flip a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood back and forth between them, sometimes lying on it, sometimes hanging from it, sometimes vaulting over it. The results are infused with deadpan humor, but their exploration and interaction with space and each other, however tongue in cheek, becomes its own dance. I don't actually know Wood or Harrison's sexual orientation, but the piece comes across as a roundabout way for two straight guys to explore dance in the least "gay" way they could come up with.
For another early work, Three-Legged (1997), Wood and Harrison tied their legs together as if they were going to run a three-legged race. Instead, they stand against a blank wall. In front of them is an automatic tennis ball server. The video is shot using the artists' preferred method, a single camera on tripod. The camera was set up directly behind the barrel firing the balls. You see it move from side to side as it shoots balls out at close range and at what looks like really high speed. The duo struggle to move in unison from side to side to dodge the balls. They are not always successful. As they lurch back and forth, they try to remain expressionless, although you can see the panic creep into their eyes. Wood (the shorter one) does visibly wince and clutch himself when struck in the chest. It's ridiculous and riveting, all the more so because the artists are trying so hard to appear unfazed as projectiles are launched at them at something approximating the speed of crowd-controlling rubber bullets.
Other performances solely focus on Wood and involve a variety of spare and brilliantly stupid props. In Device (1996), Wood executes a swan dive with the use of harness and rope suspension, assumes yoga poses with the help of a conveyor belt, climbs up a steep slope using angled shoes, and performs a headstand by standing upright inside a giant-D-shaped form that rolls forward, leaving him upside down. It's a series of athletic feats accomplished with the most obvious mechanical assistance.
In other works, the artists are largely absent. Notebook (2004) is a four-channel installation of short, videoed actions, all centered on the same white table. It's the kind of stuff you can only come up with through some dedicated goofing around. In one clip, they use a match to prop open a dictionary, and then light it. As it burns, it snaps, and the dictionary closes, snuffing out the flame. In another, a can of shaving cream in a glass cylinder squirts out, filling the container and turning it white. And in yet another, white sugar flows from a funnel onto the table, slowly obscuring a black circle on its surface. The same principle is at work yet again in a black floor mat that slowly turns white as milk is poured into its rubber bristles.
The experiments are endless and fascinating. The hallmark of Harrison and Wood's best work is the creativity and innovation that grow out of tight parameters, simple materials and time on your hands.
The show is packed with videos, and there are some hits and misses, but mostly you forgive the misses. The only piece that I thought was predominantly unsuccessful and in need of some significant editing was The Only Other Point (2005), a video that creates the illusion of a continuous pan through dozens of cell-like, gray-painted rooms in which various kinds of balls — tennis, beach, ping-pong and otherwise — do various things, mostly without visible human intervention. Tennis balls drop out of the ceiling and knock over boxes or land on Wood's bald head. Ping-pong balls spill out from a briefcase or run through pipes. Beach balls hang in the air and rotate. Some of the vignettes work, but a whole lot don't. It's obvious that Harrison and Wood were really scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with more crap to do with balls in this one. It would have been better to go for quality over quantity.
Houston, home to the collaborative duo The Art Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing), is a great place for this exhibition. Those familiar with the Art Guys' long history of absurd performances will find the work especially interesting. (The Art Guys began collaborating in 1983; Wood and Harrison began ten years later in 1993.)
While the Art Guys and Wood and Harrison all embrace humor and absurdity, they each have their own cultural spin. The Art Guys excel in satirically over-the-top showmanship and salesmanship, a send-up of American stereotypes. Meanwhile, Wood and Harrison's expressionless stoicism in the face of absurdity is a skillful exaggeration of stereotypical British understatement and restraint. But, no matter where your cultural — or artistic — allegiances lie, "Answers to Questions" is worth checking out.