For some time now, Ben Russell has been tearing it up in the world of experimental cinema, but with his new solo exhibition, he is establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the gallery as well. Uh-Oh It’s Magic, showing currently at threewalls in Chicago’s West Loop, takes an ambiguous stance toward magic and belief. Some of Russell’s most engaging proclivities are on display: it’s a show with immediate visual appeal, in which large and heavy concerns are deftly balanced by a kind of wry, deflationary humor and spiked with plenty of sensual pleasure.
The show begins with an ante-chamber or foyer in which the front room of the threewalls gallery is entirely painted in chroma-key green. At the opening, attendees floated in a green space, drinking green alcohol and listening to the sound of a spooky ascending figure (sampled from the Cars song, “Magic”) as it revolved on a green 7-inch record spinning atop a green pedestal. On the walls are small found photographs printed dead in the center of large expanses of white paper, surrounded by chroma-key blue frames. Through the use of chroma-key, Russell points toward the magic of cinema, tranforming this anterior space into a no-space which could be any-space.
The rest of the show works with film and projected light more directly. A system constructed from 16mm film projectors, prisms, and mirrors traces a perfect pentagram in the air for a fraction of a second if and only if all of the elements come into perfect synchronicity (a rare occurrence, like the stars aligning in the heavens). A film loop juxtaposes the scene of an ancient Icelandic witch-drowning pool with an image of Russell trying, in vain, to levitate.
Another video installation focuses on animist magicians in Mali, with two similar but disjunct sets of imagery projected on opposite sides of the same hanging surface; the differences between the two views amplifies the question of the trustworthiness of the artist who, like the Seven Dogon Magicians depicted, is in some part a sincere seeker of truth/beauty/magic, but also in some degree a huckster, a charlatan, a peddler of snake-oil. All in all, a very compelling show, highly recommended.