Smartly modeled after a “mixed tape,” Tommy Becker presents a series of unevenly successful videos (with an opening night performance) at Royal NoneSuch Gallery. The project is composed of two sides and twenty-five tracks. Each video is assigned a track number and dedicated to a moment, person, or phenomenon of daily life, for example, song for significant others, song for the collectors, song for separation, etc. The compilation builds a loose narrative through lyrics, electronic music, found video footage, performance, graphic design, and text. While Becker performed selections from both sides at the opening, only one side is presented in the gallery. At their most compelling moments, Becker’s beautifully edited videos have a charming and crazed humor, while at their worst they are a confusing mix of lyrics and images.
For the opening, Becker performed the vocal elements of some of the videos with a microphone and laptop. At times, the electronic music complimented the videos’ pace and ambiance. However, with his slightly emotive delivery and stage theatrics–at one moment, Becker swayed his microphone rhythmically above his head–the small gallery, with its few attendants, was uncomfortable. Even in his most successful pieces, where the lyrics and delivery are more sedate, the live performance diverted the viewers’ attention to him, adding little to the overall experience of the videos themselves.
While it is not included in the gallery, Becker performed Track Twenty: song for the collectors (2011). The video begins with a black and white scene in which a digitally colored pink balloon deflates in front of a microphone. Becker proceeds to weave together fragments of Warhol’s iconic flowers and Marilyn Monroe, references to Warhol’s disaster silkscreens, Lichtenstein’s half-tone dots and comic book text bubbles, and an Albers color theory painting. Toward the end of the video, Becker—wearing a wig and holding the pink balloon—is seated on a couch watching television. Becker’s video suggests the evolution of contemporary art with an open-endedness, such that he literally links himself to the art that preceded him. Moreover, Becker’s video speaks to the absurdity of the things we covet, be they balloons or art.
Unfortunately, the extraordinarily strong visuals in Track Twenty are accompanied by a befuddling narrative in two voices. The male voice recites the main text, which begins:
A deep breath through the nose
Collects the airborne particulates
Inside your body cavity,
Environmental matter combines with inner essence
Through the lips
The compound is transferred to their colored containers. . . .
The female voice seductively repeats the key words after each line, i.e., “the nose,” “collects,” “the body,” etc. With its techno rhythms and spoken-word lyrics, the soundtrack prioritizes style over content. Moreover, the relationship between the lyrics and video is oblique.
Track One: song for a significant other (2005), one of the strongest pieces in the series, begins with a picturesque meadow with chirping birds and the caption, “pulling down the sky to give you the sun.” A figure in yellow top and knit hat, pulled over his entire face, approaches a modestly sized blue backdrop hanging in front of a tree. In a rudimentary way, the figure jumps up to grab his knees. After a few jumps, he remains suspended in a tucked position and rotates while the grass and tree branches bristle in the wind. A slightly high pitched electronic pulse accompanies the video to add cadence and pace. With its title, Track One: song for a significant other, Becker’s video is suggestive of a love song, one that avoids all of the pop song clichés. The title in combination with the caption, “pulling down the sky to give you the sun,” sincerely expresses devotion, while the absurdist gesture and yellow costume soften its potential mawkishness.
Becker’s smartly edited videos and well conceived format really shine when he uses simple gestures—like, a deflating balloon, a shadow hand puppet, a jump to represent the sun etc. These unassuming gestures succinctly combine poetry and humor. In contrast, his discordant lyrics distract from his content, rather than enriching it. Becker’s slightly crazed rawness is engaging, but it needs to be reigned in to allow the viewer entrance.
Tommy Becker: Pages of Video–Tape Number One: Side One is on view at Royal NoneSuch Gallery, Oakland, CA until April 29, 2012.
Genevieve Quick is a San Francisco-based artist and art writer. Quick has been awarded residence at the de Young Museum, MacDowell, Derjassi, and Yaddo.