At one point in James Richards’s video collage series The Misty Suite (2009), the footage cuts back and forth between a scene of a young, bored Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) sketching and nodding off, an instructional film about drawing, and a sci-fi outer-space scene. Rather than a meditation on inspiration, the repetition induces a sense of hysteria. Many of the 29-year-old Welsh-born artist’s videos have a theme of school or instruction as if Richards is playing with the notion of appropriation as always pedantic or abstract. “I really feel like I’m hacking away, following grooves, seeing what shapes emerge,” says Richards, who works from his shared top-floor studio in Dalston, near Ridley Road Market. “My job is to carve back from the total excess of images.” In Not Blacking Out, Just Turning the Lights Off, the 20-minute video at the heart of Richards’s solo museum exhibition in 2011 at the Chisenhale Gallery, a young porn actor is seen being coached into passive meditation by an off-screen voice. With his shaved head, the porn actor is a doppelgänger for the artist himself as well as for the everyman viewer, and we’re soon ushered into a dream world where, among other tensions, the swerving soundtrack sometimes conflicts with, and sometimes harmonizes with, the visuals, which include black computer-generated blobs forming over X-rays and elk running in the night. The climax features audio of legendary American poet Judy Grahn reciting her haunting, furiously repetitive poem about the passivity brought on by age: “Am I not only / stingy little / Am I not simple / brittle spitting.” Richards, who also works in sculpture, takes a sculptural approach to molding his found video materials. This extends to the presentation of his videos—in exhibitions at the ICA in London in 2008 and the New Museum in New York in 2009, among others, Richards has showed his pieces on elevated platforms. While the gesture points toward a communal experience, it also puts the viewer’s body on a stage. Richards talks about articulating the contrast between the solitude of the making sort and the “utilitarian group encounter” of its reception. At the 2011 Chisenhale show, he created a stark, sterile mint-green box filled with ominously bland benches resembling those from a primary school. Richards seems to find constant ways to re-school the viewing experiences. “I suppose there’s also an element of fetish to it,” he adds.
PHOTO: JAMES RICHARDS IN LONDON, OCTOBER 2012. JACKET: ROBERTO CAVALLI. TANK TOP: RICHARDS’S OWN.
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