THEODORE DARST & COLLIN LEITCH:
Not Every Place You Fit In Is Where You Belong
On ViewKing's Leap
April 6 – May 14, 2018
A bone that Collin Leitch carved from soapstone—Linger at the edge of the woods for a fixed amount of time (2018)—rests horizontally on a wall in front of two vinyl-printed video stills. The bone is smooth and scaled to the hand, the ideal size for a small weapon that lives on the body of its owner. It occupies that unreal gap between anatomically correct and cartoonish, leaving the question open as to whether it belongs to our reality or the digital environment of its vinyl backdrop. The boundary separating the two is protected by three bird overseers, perched like sentries on branches in the rightmost print.
This is the kind of world Theodore Darst and Collin Leitch have crafted in their collaborative exhibition Not Every Place You Fit In Is Where You Belong. Two adjacent walls of the gallery hold objects by Leitch and aluminum prints by Darst, and a jointly-created video installation—the crux of the show—is situated in the opposite corner. The video All Manner of Thing Shall Be Well (2018) plays across two stacked monitors mounted on twin steel pipes. The installation stands in the floorspace slightly below eye level—its height and paneled arrangement of the double monitors bring to mind an altarpiece. Religious imagery punctuates the video’s landscape, which was partially built with footage lifted from the role-playing video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This open-world game allows players to freely explore its virtual realm and shape their own narratives, a feature Darst and Leitch exploited in the tradition of Machinima (a filmmaking technique where players use the graphics engine of a game to capture footage for a cinematic production). The artists are in dialogue with this practice, but elaborate on the richly textured aesthetic of Skyrim with originally rendered 3D graphics, manipulated video sourced from the internet, digital painting, and other techniques too inventive to pin down. The result is a frenetic montage of imagery that either fragments or evolves as soon as it begins to make sense.
In a collage-equivalent of a battle scene, images flash subliminally to make up a cathedral in flames. 3D Christian symbols appear in succession like a code to be decrypted: a cross, an icon of Christ, a Celtic knot, and others. A line suggesting a path on a map dips between the two screens, bridging worlds. Images of trees are digitally painted into view in real-time, and the forest comes together in pieces, its density foiling visibility. Hawks pop up over crepuscular rays while the word “Reflect” forms and splinters apart repeatedly—a command so literal given the context that it’s hard to trust. Together with their powerful eyes the hawks are an all-seeing entity, but it’s too many good omens at once. The artists have a way of overusing clichéd iconography until meaning is muddled, leaving one puzzled and suspicious.
The protagonist is a monastic young woman in a gray hooded robe. We zoom in on her in a black void until one eye—emitting light from its edges to signify a revelatory vision—fills the screens, creating the impression that the following imagery is generated by her mind’s eye. She glides through the landscape with head bowed, appearing only a handful of times. She could be a representation of Julian of Norwich, an anchoress who lived during the Middle Ages, and whose name is etched on a soapstone bird made by Leitch (The Anchoress & The Albatross ). Anchoresses reside permanently in solitary church cells to lead lives of asceticism and prayer. Their cell is the extent of their world; and so the journey, a frequent complement to introspection, becomes a metaphor for spiritual pursuits. Darst and Leitch make a convincing analogy between the inner ruminations of the spiritual person on a journey and the exploration of virtual landscapes. A role-playing game can be a kind of monastic retreat where one discovers truths through a series of fictional decisions and outcomes.
The theme of monasticism is complicated by the artists’ maximalist use of digital imagery—the former is concerned with austerity and the latter with excess. The rapidly shifting range of techniques compounded with iconographic changes produces a crisis of perspective, one of the most interesting accomplishments of the video: I’m a witness to the precarity of my own perception because I’m continually questioning if it is my eyes through which I’m seeing, or those of the woman or a hawk, or if this is seeing at all and not the hypnagogic premonitions of a spiritual recluse. Through this disorienting yet captivating world, Darst and Leitch deliver an experience that feels like Easter Mass conducted from the basement of a fantasy gamer.