This is the last in a series of profiles of the four Georgia artists who are finalists for the Hudgens Prize: a $50,000 cash award and a solo exhibition at the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts. A jury will select the winner on the basis of studio visits and a joint exhibition at the Hudgens Center beginning June 8. The series ran on successive days, starting May 31.
Chris Chambers often says that he grew up watching too much television and playing too many video games.
You could say that his love of, or at least intimacy with, television and its shared cultural history are the underlying themes of his engaging, tightly edited videos — a cross between Nam June Paik and pre-“Clock” Christian Marclay — displayed on variously sized TV sets arranged in stacks and formations. An image mixologist, he weaves, literally and metaphorically, tidbits of visual culture into these as well as 2-D works.
If you’ve ever caught yourself zoning out in front of the TV, staring at the flickering screen without really paying attention, you’ll probably like Chambers’ work. It’s mesmerizing in its composition and construction, and in the sheer pleasure in the mediated image that it conveys.
The 31-year-old artist, who received a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005, works in a cavernous, cluttered space in the Metropolitan complex in southwest Atlanta. He now logs more hours in front of the boob tube as he combs through VHS tape after VHS tape in the name of art, sifting through commercials, infomercials, graphics, talk shows, other TV shows and movies. There’s no theme per se, though Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey are prominently featured in one installation. Sometimes the only thing that links the appropriated videos in a montage is that they were all drawn from donated tapes.
Chambers’ working process is both low- and high-tech. He records segments lasting several seconds to several minutes using a small TV set with a built-in VCR and a 13-year-old mini-cassette video camera. That footage gets transferred to a computer, on which he uses Final Cut Pro to edit it into rhythmic compositions. “The video is almost secondary to the sound,” he says.
His multi-channel works can involve as many as five DVD players and 38 TV sets, which are orchestrated to play off one another and in sync.
For the Hudgens exhibition, Chambers is using Hollywood movies for the first time. The common thread linking all the sources is a particular well-known actor (I’m sworn to secrecy), though the artist emphasizes that the work is not about celebrity or pop culture. (Nothing wrong with that in my book; see Candice Breitz.)
Chambers began collecting old TV sets about nine years ago. His work wouldn’t translate well to flat-panel TVs, because its square format aligns better with VHS, and analog’s obsolescence is a key element for him.
“It has a visual texture very specific to its medium, a certain number of lines of resolution . . . very specific imperfections and inconsistencies and degradations,” he explained in a 2010 interview in Creative Loafing. “[Digital] is very near the point where there is no texture, no real visual boundary between our basic visual experience and a mediated experience.”
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan has been influential on Chambers, particularly his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” first appeared. Just as McLuhan was less concerned about what aired on television than with the effect the medium itself was having on society, the content of the video clips Chambers selects is not as relevant as the materials themselves and how they are presented.
Chambers’ drawings and collages share an affinity with his video work in method and subject matter. For one collage, he took three advertisements featuring Cheryl Tiegs from Life magazine, sliced them into strips and intermingled them to make a composite, almost faceted image. You’d be hard-pressed to identify the supermodel. He has given yearbook photos the same treatment, but with a twist: instead of cutting up his source material, he has drawn “woven” pictures that mimic collage.
Chambers recounted an amusing anecdote that demonstrates how much context matters. For his project for the Elevate/Art Above Underground exhibition in 2011, he filled an empty storefront on Peachtree Street with 34 TV sets displaying video montages. When he would visit the downtown space to update videos or fix blown sets, passers-by would sometimes ask, “When are you going to open?” or “do you sell [a particular item]?”
Some people got it and some didn’t. After a while, instead of explaining that it was art, Chambers would just reply, “Nah, we don’t have that.”
See more photos of the artist’s work here.