Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Mark Lewis’ Moving Pictures
Adam Harrison

For several years, Mark Lewis has been occupied by the complicated, perhaps futile, ambition of making film works that not only deal with the history and nature of pictorial art, but may themselves act as pictures. His recent exhibition at Monte Clark’s Toronto gallery presented six examples of these attempts, which, to me, outline two separate tactics that he has employed towards this aim.

The first of these has to do with an examination of the technical apparatus of cinema, displayed most explicitly in Downtown: Tilt, Zoom and Pan (2005). The work describes a single location from a static camera position by revealing multiple aspects of the scene through the camera’s various capabilities for movement. Here we are shown a still-life, a landscape, a motif with a small action, and something of a portrait.

One of the primary problems that has risen with the introduction of non-narrative film and video work to the gallery space has been temporal length. Lewis’ recent work, while dealing with the legacy of experimental filmmaking, also, due to its gallery context, has to address this problem. Rather than ignore this problem, take it as subject, or resolve it (as in Rodney Graham’s loops), Lewis structures all of his recent works on the four minute long reel of 35mm film. The works have a fixed form, like, for example, the rectangular image of a camera. The duration provides a stricture that seems to free him to work out problems that are pertinent to him and his medium. In Downtown, both the duration and the fixed camera are used to structure the work, allowing the various dramatic possibilities of the location to be revealed.

Lewis’ Northumberland (2005) is focused on a drystone wall in the English countryside. The frame is split almost equally between the wall and the landscape behind it. The entire film consists of gradual panning along the wall. As this occurs, the image changes very little—it looks very much like what a photograph of the subject might. In this work, Lewis is not trying to depict a scene, but rather he is attempting to describe it: something that no single photograph could do to such effect.

Lewis’ other tactic seems to be one of simple yet voracious looking. Gladwell’s Picture Window (2005) does nothing but look at its subject. It depicts a shop window with some framed pictures in front of a red velvet curtain and little else. The camera oscillates around, tracing the action of the film, which is not in—but rather is—the reflection in the glass. The curvature of the window creates several planes of reflection and refraction, and the camera’s movement places these in flux. The camera’s lens, also curved, continuously complicates perspective as it moves. It is almost a description of optics; as if the curved glass of the window is studying the curved glass of Lewis’ lens and vice versa.

Gladwell’s Picture Window shares much in common with the photography of Lee Friedlander, most explicitly with his many visually perplexing (and engaging) pictures of reflections. Friedlander, working with lessons passed on from Eugene Atget and Walker Evans, played with photographic space, and the ways that it can be complicated and entangled by the superimposition of multiple planes of vision. What Friedlander accomplishes with an ever-growing number of images, Lewis does with just one work. In moving his camera, Lewis is able to replicate the visual phenomena of the real time observation of this window. It chronicles (or restages) Lewis’ encounter with the subject, and poignantly describes the wonder of trying to understand our visual world through what Peter Galassi, writing on Friedlander, called “a mingling of outside and inside that make[s] a funhouse of pictorial possibility.”1

One of the most visually spectacular films in the exhibition, Rush Hour, Morning and Evening, Cheapside (2005) depicts the elongated shadows of commuters on their way to and from work. Turned upside-down, the shadows appear right-side up, becoming surrogates for the actual people they depict. Again, we see a duality that Lewis seems to be striving for: a visually engaging “image” with strong connections to both historical photography and painting, that works out or addresses a specific problem within the medium of film. While all of his works depict and engage movement, there is a photographic stillness to each that allows them to be viewed in a manner similar to how we view pictures. Through their duration, however, they address aspects of the picture that still images rarely or never can.

Located between these two approaches—the passive act of observation and the more actively self-reflexive critique—is Lewis’ Rear Projection (Molly Parker) (2006). Essentially a moving portrait of the actress set against a backdrop of a northern Canadian landscape, the work is one of Lewis’ most ambitious projects since his more narrative-based films of the 1990s. In the film, Parker stands in the frame, barely moving, looking off-camera, fully absorbed in something out of the frame. Behind her is a dilapidated, seemingly abandoned gas station set between a road and a forest, rich in fall colours. Halfway through the film, the scene behind her changes, dissolving into an identical view of the landscape in winter. There is no cut visible; Parker’s “action” is seamless. As Lewis’ title implies, the landscape behind her is presented by an archaic cinematic method called rear-projection, and as such, there is a spatial and temporal severance between the figure and her environment.

Lewis points out that Renaissance painters, when painting commissioned portraits, would use the landscape behind the central figure for their own experimentation, essentially splitting the image into two separate works.2 Similarly, Lewis conflates two genres—the portrait and the landscape—but only superficially. Here we have essentially two separate works that deal with different concerns, but gain from each other in their simultaneity.

Molly Parker stands in front of the “scene,” completely absorbed in something (or nothing) off camera. It is unclear whether she is playing a role or just being herself. Were this a photograph, the work would simply appear as a picture of someone looking off camera. Here, it is only due to duration that we can identify the subject as being absorbed, and therefore it becomes as much a scene as a portrait. When the landscape dissolves and Parker is unaffected by the cut, we realize that the two aspects are disconnected. At this point the work becomes more than a landscape. Instead, it can now be understood as a formal experiment in the structural apparatus of cinematic seeing, and also a singular statement on absorption as a tactic.3

The exact nature of what the film is is complicated by these varying aspects, and it is clear that this is important to understanding Lewis’ intentions for the work. Lewis is not at odds with the disparate tactics that are deployed in his work, or with the ever-present line between the visual and cognitive aspects. Rather, I think that it is critical that both of these aspects exist in more or less equal measure.

A definitive conclusion on whether or not moving images can be “pictures” is not Lewis’ goal. Rather, these works act as proposals or conjecture; what can time and movement bring to pictures and what can imposed stillness and temporal restraint bring to film. Conclusions aside, these works point to technical elements of his medium that add up to a multifaceted yet concise attempt at understanding the relationship between duration and the history of picture-making that haunts all of his work.

  1. Peter Galassi, “You Have to Change to Stay the Same,” Friedlander (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 38.
  2. In conversation with the artist, April 2006.
  3. See Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Image: Mark Lewis, still from Rush Hour, Morning and Evening, Cheapside, 2005. 35mm film.

About the Author

Adam Harrison is a Vancouver-based artist, working principally in photography. He is also the co-curator of CSA Space, Vancouver, and co-editor of the online arts and literary magazine, Doppelganger, which can be read at

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