Now best known for enormous abstract paintings executed with a single brushstroke, British-born artist James Nares was something of a punk when he arrived in New York in 1974. After all, it was the punk era in then-blighted Manhattan. Nares was part of the movement, performing with the band the Contortions at CBGB’s and opening impromptu art galleries in friends’ lofts around the city.
He also made some do-it-yourself super-8mm short films, recently unearthed and restored by Anthology Film Archives. Atlanta curator Andy Ditzler will screen some of them Friday, September 16, as part of his Film Love series, and they’re fascinating — both as hypnotic, experimental works complete unto themselves and as time-capsule glimpses of a lost Manhattan.
“He was in with all these young artists from the CBGB’s crowd, who were also making films,” says Ditzler. “But their films were really engaged with narrative. They’re acted films, grungy B-movies depending on personalities like Lydia Lunch, acting out in a post-Warhol way.”
By contrast, the subjects of Nares’ works tend to be split between the artist himself (confronting the camera with a deadpan demeanor) and objects observed closely, in action. Several of the films are obsessive, poetic looks at ordinary things, slowed down in trajectory to distill their everyday beauty. Take “Steel Rod” (1976), in which Nares, on a downtown rooftop, again and again catches and pitches back the item of the title to a friend behind the camera. Or “Twister” (1976), capturing a whirlwind on the sidewalk that spins trash around like a dervish.
In “Ramp” (1976), Nares chases a heavy concrete ball down a New York street, until it clangs against a wall. And in “Pendulum” (also ’76), a similar-looking ball swings back and forth above an alley’s pavement, its cable creaking plaintively like a tired beast. While slightly ominous in their visual austerity, these films also have a basic playfulness — like the work of a bored kid whiling away an afternoon by creating whole worlds out of found objects. And, with any luck, destroying them.
“He’s got such an interest in destruction, watching things crash into each other,” says Ditzler, who has an ongoing telephone relationship with Nares, as he plans further showings of the artist’s work and a performance piece later this year. “It’s definitely childish and childlike.”
An accidental aspect of Nares’ films is their value as archaeology, capturing a New York that no longer exists. “Pendulum,” for instance, was shot during midday in a totally empty Tribeca street (photo above). “It was wreckage south of 14th Street in Manhattan,” Ditzler says. “James calls it ‘beautiful wreckage.’” Also, in “Waiting for the Wind,” repeated shots of the World Trade Center towers can take your breath away, an offhand, unexpected resurrection.
The evening’s longest film, around 30 minutes, is “Suicide? No, Murder” (1977). In it, Nares returns for a visit to London just as the right-wing National Front is gaining momentum. “It’s akin to what we’re going through with the Tea Party,” Ditzler says by way of quick analogy, “only this was a really nasty, openly fascist group.” The movie vacillates between shots of anti-National Front marchers in London streets and of Nares riding in taxis, hanging out with friends and deciding what his next move will be. Says Ditzler, “It’s part diary and part political documentary.”
“James Nares: Films From the No Wave.” A Film Love presentation. 8 p.m. Friday, September 16. The program is scheduled to include “Ramp,” “Cloth,” “Punch,” “Twister” “Weather Bed,” “Steel Rod,” “Pendulum,” “Primary Function,” “Waiting for the Wind” and “Suicide? No, Murder.” Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means Street N.W. $5 ($3 with Contemporary membership). 404-688-1970.