Brent Stewart keeps a fox hide on a shelf in his studio in North Nashville. Its placement there seems careful and deliberate — its snout faces outward, its whiskers are still fresh and straight, and two furry eye sockets are just shriveled holes that make it look like it's squinting. When I ask Stewart about it, he shrugs it off and says it was just something he found.
It takes a certain type of person to keep a memento like this front-and-center in an otherwise spare studio space. The fox is a little sweet, a little gross and a little scary — and it's a perfect amalgamation of Stewart's work. Quintet, an installation of five videos that opened last week at Zeitgeist, examines the mythology that lies just underneath everyday life, and it has a lot in common with the little fox.
Stewart is a photographer and filmmaker from Nashville, but he studied at Goldsmith's College in London — the same school that produced many of the artists known collectively as the Young British Artists (Damien Hirst and Marcus Harvey, to name just two), and he frequently collaborates on projects with fellow Nashvillian Harmony Korine. For someone who shares such close associations with so many sensational artists, Stewart plays a much quieter game. His work is careful and composed, but filled with the potential to grow sinister and unhinged at any moment. The result is unsettling in a way that makes you question whether it is the artist's intention to disturb, or just your dark nature.
Among his films are 2010's The Colonel's Bride, about a Vietnam vet meeting his Vietnamese mail-order bride, and "The Dirty Ones," a 2008 short that follows two Mennonite girls after their truck breaks down en route to a mysterious burial. He is currently finishing a project with Laurel Nakadate called "The Miraculous," that fictionalizes the last days of Bas Jan Ader, the pioneering performance artist who disappeared off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in 1975.
Stewart has the patience of a great cinema verité documentarian. The five videos in Quintet are disarmingly simple — silent, unedited and shot on 16mm film, which gives them the same archival quality of an alien autopsy video, or Bruce Nauman's "Walking in an Exaggerated Manner" piece from the late 1960s. A description of what takes place in each film would not do the work justice, because it's purposefully ambiguous and atmospheric, like a surveillance video shot by David Lynch. There is empty space, and a woman — a friend of Stewart's who is a professional dancer — moves around inside of it. She is beautiful, graceful and captivating. Each video plays on a square television set atop a white column, which gives the installation a sculptural quality — the columns work like Greek pedestals, but the outdated TVs, with their bulk, cables and circuit panels, are like blocks of 20th century technology. Like the work itself, the installation is both classical and modernist.
In four of the five films, the camera records at a fixed angle. In one, the woman is on a rooftop, and the only real action is the movement of her back muscles as she touches her hair; in another, she's inside an empty warehouse. Each film lasts only a couple minutes. The minimal subject matter highlights the subtleties of movement the way negative space can fill a photograph, or bold chiaroscuro dramatizes a painting.
But the television in the middle of the installation is different. The camera follows the woman from behind as she walks through rubble and graffiti-covered brick walls, her hair long and wavy against her back. This image seems out of place, and I was reminded of the scene in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life that followed Sean Penn on a beach, and made me feel like I was getting ready to see an ad for Calvin Klein perfume in the middle of the feature. Maybe this piece was part of Stewart's narrative that I didn't understand. Maybe he meant for it to be a kind of portal that we followed the woman through. But, like the Sean Penn beach scene, it seems almost purposefully at odds with the rest of the work, and it took me out of the story.
Stewart recently led me through Nashville's Parthenon, and we guffawed at the replica statue of Athena, a 41-foot beast of a goddess with gilded eyelashes and crazed Bette Davis eyes. But there was also a reverence that Stewart seemed to feel in the presence of the iconic lady. The woman in Quintet is treated similarly, like both an object (an assortment of lines that move through space) and a treasure — she is being followed, admired and studied with the close attention of a schoolroom specimen, or even a fox hide lying on a shelf.
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