Perspectives 158: Kelly Nipper
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
by Leah DeVun
I had high expectations for Perspectives 158, Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Nipper's first solo museum show in the United States, on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Nipper has so far created a promising body of work focused on the themes of time, space, and continuity, which she explores through "experiments" testing the limits of human perception and control. Her photographs, videos, and performances are often complex affairs involving professional dancers, months of preparation, and intricately-planned scripts. But this sparse exhibition at the CAMH is a poor introduction to the artist's work and at odds with the high-quality shows that audiences have come to expect from the museum.
The leitmotif of Perspectives 158 is an ice-coated wire mobile that appeared previously in Bending Water into a Heart Shape, Nipper's show-stopping four-channel video featured last year in Houston as a part of "Girls' Night Out" at the Blaffer Gallery. In Bending Water (not on view at the CAMH), a dancer performs a figure-skating jump at an excruciatingly slow pace. Rather than manipulating the speed of the video, Nipper records the dancer in real time as she executes the jump over the course of an hour, a feat requiring enormous mental and physical control (and apparently extensive training in a form of martial arts called Ba Gua).
The dancer's exertions are obvious from her facial expressions and her missteps as her muscles fail during extended poses. The video also includes the wire mobile, which is hung with beads of ice. As the ice melts, the mobile is thrown momentarily off-kilter, resulting in unpredictable movements that resonate with the dancer's halting performance. The videos suggest the spontaneous moments of imbalance that interrupt periods of sustained elemental, physical, and mental stability. It's a lovely work.
In Perspectives 158, digital screen grabs of the mobile from Bending Water are recycled as Weather Center, and the same mobile makes a guest appearance alongside recording equipment in Love with the Sound Technician. Nipper views the mobile as a bridge between her older work and her new series, but the connection feels forced, and any sense of transformation that the melting ice might have expressed is absent. As a result, these flat and static photographs lack the dynamism and humor of Bending Water. Nipper's complex, research-fueled concepts are among the strengths of her art. But when no explanatory labels are present to explain the story behind the pieces, her work can be rather inaccessible to viewers. Such is the case with a diptych of a girl and a thermometer (also part of Weather Center), which suffers from a lack of context. In this respect, Nipper exemplifies a trend in contemporary photography in which the concept is as important as - if not more important than - the visual impact of the images. "I'm more interested in the process of making the work than with the outcome," Nipper said in an interview with SPOT.
The show has highlights too. The video An Arrangement for the Architect and a Darkroom Timer recalls Nipper's earlier structured yet spontaneous tests of mental and physical endurance. An Architect... records the profiles of two strangers, a man and a woman, as they are forced to stand very close to one another for an hour. Their initial flirtation gives way to increasing discomfort and even hostility under the strain of such proximity. Evergreen takes place on the soundstage where Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson recorded a song of the same name for the movie A Star Is Born. The four photographs show an empty stage on which a sound technician sometimes appears, and they point to the missing yet crucial moments between frames within a sequence. Both the video and photographs are concerned with the measure or stoppage of time, and they play with continuities and discontinuities associated with physical presence and absence.
Nipper is an emerging artist who is feeling her way through some big sets and big ideas. Her best projects enlist multiple performers who submit to months of training, and Nipper cites a range of impressive-sounding influences, from the choreographer Rudolf Laban to the occultist Aleister Crowley. Yet this show seems small. A complicated installation called Circle Circle was proposed as a part of Perspectives 158 but was not included for various technical and budgetary reasons. Perhaps that piece would have injected some drama into the gallery and connected the other works. As it stands, viewers are left to experience a rather less pleasant feeling of absence than Nipper dreamed.