John Pilson’s video and photographic work contrasts the refined sobriety of the urban landscape and architectural detail with the levity of human expression and play. His settings, often shown in fragmented details, are populated by regular-seeming characters who engage in individualized, even quixotic, acts of expression. As Pilson examines the structures and systems that place one in a given role, he equally considers human resilience and the impulse to express.
The two-channel format of Above the Grid (2000) establishes a point/counterpoint of setting and action. As a pair of suited businessmen break into earnest doo-wop on one screen, the second monitor displays a sterile office corridor which perhaps led to the tiled bathroom where the two harmonize. Interspersed with their song are views of urban skyline, steaming roofs, and architectural facades, which stand in opposition to the intimate a cappella performance. The juxtaposition suggests a rift between décor and decorum.
In addition to the doo-wop concert, a ricocheting game of handball and a king-of-the-hill scuffle occur in the seemingly endless corridors of the office building. In Pilson’s corporate America, protocol provokes play which is itself a guise for struggle—the songs tell of broken hearts and conflict; co-workers gently push, shove, and mark territory in vain.
If the modernist sterility of Above the Grid suggests a history-less past, St Denis (2003), with its rich background, offers Pilson a complex foil against which to consider the human imprint on architectural space. Built in 1855, St. Denis was designed as a grand Manhattan hotel. In 1877 Alexander Graham Bell presented his first public demonstration of the telephone in the “gentlemen’s parlor” on the second floor. Later the building was converted to design shops and office spaces. Marcel Duchamp maintained a secret studio in the building where he completed Etant Donnés (1946-66), his final art project: an eerie tableaux concealed behind a large wooden door and visible only through two small peep holes. Today the building is primarily occupied by psychologists and other therapists.
Pilson thoroughly examines the building’s corpus, its surfaces and arteries, as he also captures its cast of characters or tenants. The players function in interstitial spaces: restrooms, hallways, stairwells, and basement corridors. The building is examined by Pilson’s lens with a medical-like thoroughness. Turn-of-the-century ornamentation is contrasted with remodeled anonymous corridors. A hypnotic stairwell offers a dizzying counterpart to the sealed metallic elevator cab.
If the building is the body, the people are its soul. Engaged in various acts of consciousness, St. Denis’ characters confess, convene, and perform. Throughout, images of play and expression about signs of work and purpose. A young woman lets her hair down to perform a willful musical act. After emerging out of his personalized basement quarters, the superintendent exorcises the building in a nightly ritual of lock-down, before himself transforming into another persona. Pilson frames the many ways in which we distinguish ourselves through self-reflection and considered choice, while still allowing for play. In one scene, colorful rubber balls scatter through hallways and onto an elevator to the delight of a mobile, young toddler: innocence amid mannerism.
In other works Pilson provides distilled loops which are more readily sampled than the episodic formats of Above the Grid and St. Denis. These single- and multi-channel works bear out his fascination with connecting spaces, surface and pattern, and the ubiquity of technology upon our day-to-day existence. In “Axis,” one of the three parts of Portraits of Manhattan (2005), a young woman relentlessly tries to get dressed for a night on the town as she simultaneously provides technology instructions to a co-worker on the telephone. The not-so-subtle intrusion of work into home is only the backdrop to a poignant study of frustration and process: like the corridors of Pilson’s architectural portraits, these acts of troubleshooting and preparation are precursors to the event itself, which, in Pilson’s work, seems never to arrive. These videos use time to expand the frozen moment of photography into the relentlessness of real life.
Dark Empire (2003) offers a time-based portrait of a building and the city it symbolizes. On the evening of the 2003 New York blackout, Pilson trained his camera on the Empire State Building for a continuous 25-minute take. While the silhouette is immediately identifiable, its meaning has adapted over time, particularly since the events of 9/11. In Dark Empire, a symbol of progress becomes an icon of endurance, a single image which reflects its city and its people, en masse and individually.