Eye on the Scene
Heavenâ’s hard to find in Jeanine Osborneâ’s show at the Ewing Gallery
by Matthew Blanshei
As the title of Jeanine Osborneâ’s mixed media projectâ"Walls of Paradiseâ"might suggest, she creates a disarming sense of ambiguity even from her opening sentence: â“The walls of paradise are white and transparent. You can see in but not out.â” The beginning of Osborneâ’s text could mean: Something looks like paradise only so long as you remain on the outside looking in. Conversely, if you think you are already in, this must mean you are blinding yourself to what lies outsideâ"which doesnâ’t sound like the sort of thing we would expect people living in paradise to do.
An extended prose poem written in a number of different voices and punctuated by frequent shifts in tone, Walls of Paradise seems to synthesize several widely divergent works that examine the idea of paradise and how it has been discovered, abandoned, redefined, and lost. To take one memorable example, the following lines seem to revive the inventively self-deprecating black humor of Samuel Beckett: â“Paradise lost indeed. Paradise lost for losers of paradise. For losers lost in paradise in a lost paradise of loss.â”
While the text as a whole seems to demand that we give it multiple, slow readings, Osborneâ’s recorded narration and unaccompanied voice present the material in a manner that seldom gives way to a protracted pause or slower tempo. This essentially forces the members of the live audience to respond to the poem as though they are watching an opera.
This operatic dimension to Walls of Paradiseâ"which is, in fact, being adapted into an opera by the composer John Anthony Lennonâ"is accentuated by the projection of video clips throughout the performance; although the video has been meticulously edited so as to run parallel with the written text, the images we see and the voices we hear rarely correspond with one another in a direct way. This becomes most evident when we see Osborne in the video: She always appears either alone or among a group of people who act as though they cannot see her.
What gives the mixed-media project a pronunced sense of pathos and animated silence is the way in which each shot seems to be meticulously framed and composed. Osborne is captured alternately in close-ups, in long shots designed to emphasize the scale of the rock formations towering above her on the Mediterranean coast (the footage was shot in southern Spain), and in medium shots that juxtapose architectural ruins with what seem to be abandoned construction sites and pieces of industrial machinery.
Throughout the video, each image dissolves into another, fades out, or comprises a singular moment in a montage that also includes too few reproductions of Osborneâ’s child-like and flat action drawings. In a manner that evokes the works of, among others, Paul Klee and the abstract expressionist William Scott, Osborneâ’s drawings seem to render dreamlike images with an exacting faithfulness which actually makes them appear more real and palpable than many of the objects of the external world recorded in the video clips.
This holds true even when we see recurring shots of Osborne leaning slightly forward, her face completely hidden from us by either her hair or the position of her head. She wears an oversized white jersey that seems to pin her arms by her sides. As if by way of meager compensation, the outfit comes with a pair of clearly non-functional wings that seem to turn Osborne into an absurdist figure on par with a similar character portrayed in Rebecca Hornâ’s early-1970s film Unicorn.
â“It is nonsense, this paradise idea,â” one of the voices from Walls of Paradise persuasively blurts out with sudden vehemence halfway through Osborneâ’s live performance. â“It is a cheap invention, paradise, a stupid myth from a stupid book, a laughing matter. It stinks, cheating, shitting metaphors out of a dried legend.â”
But this is clearly not meant to be the final word, as Osborneâ’s intentions are once again placed in doubt when she takes on the persona of another character, singing a powerful, extended requiem toward the end of the video. In fact, there is no moment throughout the performance that could be identified as the final word.
What: Walls of Paradise by Jeanine Osborne When: Thru Nov. 4 Where: The University of Tennesseeâ’s Ewing Gallery How Much: Free
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