still life with phrenology head

galerie isabella bortolozzi

Someone must have had a tongue deeply set in cheek while curating “Still Life With Phrenology Head,” the group show currently on view at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi.

Consisting of only four pieces, three of them videos, the show opens with Cerith Wyn Evans’ 14-minute 1979 film that lends the exhibition its name. As the film commences, the viewer sees a “phrenology head” (a bust with diagrams on the skull for students of phrenology—the nineteenth-century pseudoscience of how skull segments indicate personality traits) on a table next to a basket of fruit and a bouquet of flowers. More fruit joins the basket; white lab rats appear, sniffing around; random images of a woman’s face are briefly flashed; and the “head” is examined from other angles, revealing that it in fact belongs to a live, shirtless man.

Evans’ first film, which he considers more of a sculpture, or collage, is fabulously seventies—a Surrealist meditation that serves as a point of departure for the show’s other three works.

Hollis Frampton’s Lemon, 1969, shows a lemon in extreme close-up, waxing and waning as a bright light moves slowly over it. The joke here is that the film is really British collage artist Mark Leckey’s Cinema-in-the-round, 2008, a film of a screening of Frampton’s film, placing the viewer into a strange meta-space.

Then there’s Death Mask II: the Scent, a 2010 HD video by British artist Ed Atkins, with more fruit close-ups and collaged images. In a nod to his predecessors, Atkins treats a melon as lovingly as a grandfather’s bald head, showing it from various angles and lighting in a rainbow of saturated color. A flip-out calculator unfolds in slow motion like a reclining chaise lounge, the back of a blonde’s head is briefly shown, and flickering candles rotate psychedelically. These images repeat over a cheesy soundtrack (the main tune is from an Italian horror film called Cannibal Holocaust). The film ends with black candle wax dripping over the melon, which has been cut in half.

A little strange, a little sensual, a little surreal; the fun and oddly addicting works all seem to be an ode to the Structuralist strains of experimental film. The sole non-video piece is Chicago surrealist Jim Nutt’s Untitled, a small graphite drawing of a discombobulated head. Its disjointed planes and features are cartoonish yet perfectly composed, and seem to be small but important anchors in an exhibition that makes you squirm, laugh and ruminate all at the same time.

by Kimberly Bradley

[Image: Ed Atkins, Death Mask II: The Scent, 2010, HD video, Dimensions variable, Installation view: Group show 'Still Life with Phrenology Head', Courtesy Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi]