…Soft as an Easy Chair: Robert Power and Rachel Barton

Cork Film Centre Gallery, Ballincollig

When talking about the possibility of emotion overrunning linguistic constructs in the introduction to her 2005 book Impersonal Passion, Denise Riley includes the following aside:

a cliché is not to be despised: its automatic comfort is the happy exteriority of a shared language which knows itself perfectly well to be a contentless but sociable turning outward toward the world.

… Soft as an Easy Chair, the result of a residency with the Cork Film Centre by recent Crawford College of Art graduates Robert Power and Rachel Barton, is an exhibition of video and drawing the premise of which – the well-worn themes of love and heart-break – inhabits this somewhat complicated world of attractive and comfortable cliché. Relying on the shorthand of ‘serious feelings’ that the subject matter implies, this exhibition exceeds the limitations of sheer triteness and, through experiment with form, manages to create something that is at times sharp and engaging.
Robert Power’s most substantial body of work consists of a number of pieces dominated by I Love You, a short film made of appropriated film scenes. The piece is bookended by extracts from You Only Live Twice and starts with Bond in his Sean Connery incarnation falling through a trap door onto an unsurprisingly convoluted steel slide to arrive – unperturbed of course – in the secret underground headquarters of Tiger Tanaka. There follows a short exchange between the two where Bond drawls ‘If you’re Tanaka, then how do you feel about me?’ to which Tanaka replies ‘I… love you’. This sets off a fast paced section of video which splits the screen in four and consists of minute extracts from films wherein the characters say ‘I love you’. The result, reminiscent of Dara Birnbaum’s appropriation works, is a montage of very short clips from familiar films – Brief Encounter, The Wizard of Oz, Rocky, When Harry Met Sally, Anchorman, for example –ranging from the middle of the twentieth century to the present. Power has organised these clips largely chronologically, creating an interesting effect where the formal conventions of particular eras, in terms of the sharpness of image and the colouring of the film, are foregrounded in their repetition. The rapid movement from one era to another creates a patchwork of textures and hues that highlights the formal qualities of film. Most memorable is the sound created by the multiple ‘I love you’s: ranging from restrained and trembling to screeching, it creates a soundscape that is peppered with tiny bursts of music, dialogue with other characters, and background noises, but taken in such small sections and overlaid so as to create a dissonant and overwhelming noise. The multiple ‘I love you’s make the sentiment seem entirely meaningless; though in not limiting his clips to stereotyped love scenes, but rather including declarations of love between friends and sarcastic jibing, filmic convention comes to the fore and any expression of love seems entirely overplayed and drenched in affectation.
Adjuncted onto this film are pieces narrating a break up. In Text Scroll, a small television nestles on the floor scrolling bitter emails sent from a jilted lover to their ex. The text moves so fast that it is barely legible, but small snatches can be caught: bitter expletives, desperate entreaties, harsh reprisals. In a connecting room You Left …. plays; the screen is again split into four. Showing a black and white close up of the mouth and nose of a man who speaks to an ex-lover in hackneyed terms, the image is presented in such high contrast that the figure is abstracted and at times he is almost totally effaced. The same footage is repeated in the four sections of the screen, but they are set at a short delay, meaning there is a round robin effect which destroys comprehension of the language being spoken. Although subtitled so as the speaker’s message is still coherent, the destruction of communication created by too many words too earnestly spoken creates a critical distance between the timeworn sentiment of the speaker and the artist’s inclination.
This collection of works pushes at the boundaries of the clichéd and expected. Although heavily reliant on the kind of contentless expulsions that Riley describes, Power seems aware of their emptiness yet still allows there to be authentic emotion behind them. Acknowledging the way in which the concepts of love and heartbreak are by their nature pedestrian and predictable affairs, Power seems to leave room for redemption; in You Left …. there is a moment where the sound is faster than the images that accompany it. This leaves the words ‘love you/as much/as I do’ only to be read as subtitles without the discordant soundtrack, creating a brief moment of clear, quiet and genuine sentiment in the midst of the babble and blather that accompanies the personal experience of conventional feelings.
Rachel Barton’s drawing and animations approach similar subjects but sometimes without the critical distance shown by Power. Make Shift Hearts and Rusty Spines is an animated film that narrates the break-up of a relationship. Portrayed with eccentric, ugly-but-attractive doll-like characters the narrative is familiar: the end of a relationship marked by both a nostalgic affection for one another and the knowledge that there is no future. The characters, though present in the same quirkily constructed room, are distant and clearly lonely; at one point they dance together, but it is a sad clinging on to something lost rather than the easy affection of a current relationship. Barton illustrates the emotional weight by animating a small silhouetted elephant moving across the walls of the room. Although charming, this piece fails to interrogate the clichés that it relies upon. The elephant in the room metaphor feels heavy-handed, and the scenes, though beautifully depicted, feel incredibly and uncritically familiar.

Robert Power: I Love You (2013). Video still.
Robert Power: I Love You (2013). Video still.

Her three line-drawn animations are more interesting, particularly Biddy with the Big Diddy and Fleeting, Shadowy, Misty Strife. Biddy with the Big Diddy shows an absurdly big-breasted woman aiming and squirting her breast milk onto an anthropomorphised tree. This seemingly causes the tree to start to hallucinate breasts with legs running across the screen, single breasts suddenly appearing in the air and after becoming linked disappearing again. The piece is short and intense, the way images melt and transform is evocative of Alice Maher’s animations, but Barton puts more emphasis on lightness and narrative within her surreal set-ups. Fleeting, Shadowy, Misty Strife shows a couple waltzing. The figures look almost as if drawn by a child; idealised representations which could be a prince and princess from a fairy-tale, they twirl and glide across the screen for almost a minute, finally kissing. After the kiss the female figure seems to collapse in her partner’s arms and then melt, falling away to become a puddle on the floor which then floats upwards and off the screen. As she melts the male figure walks off, seemingly unconcerned about his lover’s sudden liquescence. These short pieces are witty and sharp, their consideration of female subjectivity forms an integral part of the joke.

Despite its heavy reliance on a deeply clichéd subject matter, … Soft as an Easy Chair comes out well. The strongest moments in both artists’ work come when they acknowledge the problems of trying to speak within a language always already spoken, and either use repetition and embrace of cliché to carve out some kind of an authentic subject position as in Power’s work, or with light-hearted mocking of expectation erupting into the surreal in Barton’s. Although the artists are not always successful in their negotiation of this difficult line, this work is full of promise.
Soft as an Easy Chair was on view 17-31 May 2013