Related Articles: Gallery, All

Obsessive Absence

In the work of video artists Ellen Lake and Catherine Ross, there's an overt obsession with thwarting viewer expectations. Both Lake and Ross wed the weird with the humdrum, and seemingly mundane video footage with loopy fantasy. The two artists exhibit new and recent video work in Obsessive Absence at New Langton Arts; the culminating effect is the sort of quaint beauty you can only find in giant colorful rubber band balls and cartoonish headgear at amusement parks.

Lake is a Bay Area artist who uses video and sculpture to explore concepts of collecting, obsession, and routine. She is known for her interest in exploring personal spaces and the manner in which one's surroundings and possessions reflect personal identity. In her site-specific installation Restroom No. 1 at the Mills College Graduate Studio Building in 2001, Lake transformed the larger of two institutional bathrooms into a private one. By painting the walls pink and bringing in personal items, she created a portrait of a fictitious person who performed the act of inhabiting a public space-while the adjacent bathroom remained institutional and sparse.

Looking at the complex ways in which people order their lives, Lake personalizes the act of collecting and in her exhibited piece Collectible, also positions herself as a collector and probes her own obsession. Collectible comprises five vignettes devoted to one collector and his/her unusual passion, from Ian Golder's mac n' cheese boxes to the Mission District's Samir and Nabil Kishek, proud owners of the world's largest rubber band ball. It's an idiosyncratic medley of highly specific characters who express what Lake calls "one of the imaginative ways that people attempt to make sense out of a world that isn't always very sensible." In a time that relates what we own to who we are, Lake shows how collecting becomes a way of building personal history.

Like Lake, Catherine Ross observes unconscious yet defining human behavior in communal spaces. In her work, the moments spent waiting or being a passive observer are crucial, and her locations are "backdrops for inadvertent actors" whose fidgeting and unconscious movements are transformed into rhythmic, elegant performance. In the exhibit, Ross is screening Post Office (lunch break), Fairmont, and Wave Parade. Post Office (lunch break) documents Ross's misadventures in a Maine post office, where for three continuous weeks she entered the lobby as the window closed for lunch break and sat at a clerk's desk until the window opened an hour later. The video portrays customers' physical responses to Ross's mysterious presence and the confusion and frustration it caused. Fairmont explores the language of gestures played out by a man and woman waiting in a hotel lobby, while Wave Parade shows kids at Disney World attempting to communicate with mute cartoon characters by imitating their movements.

Ross, who currently lives in New York, is inspired by tourism and entertainment. For Ross, the public spectacle is driven by the "quest for a unique experience in an increasingly homogenized world." While tourists flock to the same sites to take the same pictures as thousands of others, Ross turns her gaze on the audience and uses video to elevate mundane behavior in amusement parks, parades, music festivals, and other public spaces.

Ross and Lake both explore obsession, space, and gesture in ways that are moving, and quirky. In a world that's overruled by symbols of consumer preference, the artists transform the idea of commodification into something else. In the absence of meaning, the minor details of the world are mulled over with obsessive watchfulness and become apt symbols for the true stuff of life.

Screening January 15, 8 pm
$8/$6 members, students, seniors

At New Langton Arts Gallery
1246 Folsom Street
(between Eighth & Ninth)
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: (415) 626-5416
www.newlangtonarts.org