In his photographs, as in his films, Gus Van Sant is a prince of indeterminacy. The computer-manipulated images that make up his art show Cut-ups at PDX Contemporary are suffused with a woozy, synesthetic haze that telegraphs multiple emotional and metaphysical states simultaneously. The celebrated auteur has scanned and digitally sliced-'n'-diced Polaroids he has taken through the years, interlacing contradictory features in brain-stumping combinations of gender, age and physique. The titles say a lot: Boy and Girl Mystery; Old and Young; Fat and Thin; Big Hair and Small Hair. ... Paradoxical states are the leitmotif of adolescence, the stage of life Van Sant returns to time and again in his films, and there are plenty of teenagers in the prints in this exhibition. Still, it is only by layering the grotesqueries of age and experience atop all the dewy flesh and longish hair that the director is able to communicate themes that stretch beyond the vapidity of his Wildean youth/beauty cult.
It's notable that the cut-up technique Van Sant has digitally adapted found its greatest original expression in the work of Beat author William S. Burroughs, who appeared in the director's Drugstore Cowboy. The disjointedness of that film's depiction of youth and drug culture have factored into other Van Sant pictures such as Mala Noche and Last Days, while the themes of moral and sexual ambiguity in My Own Private Idaho, Elephant and Paranoid Park found expression in counterintuitive editing, soft focus, slow motion and stupor-evoking sound mixing. These techniques are visually paralleled in his photographic collages.
Van Sant presents his improbable scenes with near-journalistic implacability, then stands back and dares viewers to ponder their imponderables. There's an intriguing similarity between this vision and that of fellow PDX artist Storm Tharp, whose ink drawings also mash up two or more visages of incompatible beauty and ugliness. Arcane, disturbing and entrancing, the exhibition is exactly the mind-fuck we would expect from Gus Van Sant. It would be interesting to see in future shows whether he is also capable of producing photo-based work that is not exactly what we would expect.
shows at PDX Contemporary Art, 925 NW Flanders St., 222-0063. Closes May 29.