“Code Practice: Certain Objects and Certain Systems by James Woodfill,” Joseph Nease Gallery

Installation view of “Code Practice: Certain Objects and Certain Systems by James Woodfill” at Joseph Nease Gallery.

By now, looking at art exclusively online has us all a little bleary-eyed. A welcome solution is well-known Kansas City artist Jim Woodfill’s exhibit “Code Practice: Certain Objects and Certain Systems,” presented by Joseph Nease Gallery, which was founded in Kansas City, but is now located in Duluth, where Nease continues to represent many Kansas City artists.

There are two parts to this show, pre- and post-pandemic, and both are visible on the Joseph Nease Gallery website. The pre-pandemic physical artworks originally scheduled for exhibition at the gallery are now at Woodfill’s studio. They are wall and floor works, and, as is typical for this inventive artist, combine a minimalist, Arte Povera sensibility with a love of functional design. But after the COVID shutdown, Woodfill realized that “Code Practice” was “to a great extent, about the kinetic perceptions of the work as viewers moved in relationship to them in space.” Viewers could no longer see the works in person, so Woodfill decided to make changes to the exhibit’s original format.

Installation view of “Code Practice: Certain Objects and Certain Systems by James Woodfill” at Joseph Nease Gallery.

Woodfill writes in his artist statement that: “I looked for a way in which the work for the exhibition existed in a natural habitat on the screen, not as a representation of another reality. And I looked for a way in which the viewer was an active agent, not a passive observer.” A multi-disciplinary artist already familiar with stop-motion animation, Woodfill “worked to develop a layer of kinetic activity that could only exist as a moving image.”

Setbacks can lead to interesting, inventive alternatives. The online version of the latest version of “Code Practice,” accompanied by its own soundtrack created by Woodfill, is unexpected and truly engaging. Besides existing on Nease’s gallery website, and by appointment at his gallery in Duluth, it can also be seen at night by looking through the gallery’s windows. There are four videos, all variable in length – three range from one minute, 23 seconds to seven minutes and 23 seconds. A fourth, “Certain Objects and Certain Systems (Interactive),” composed of various segments and panels which can be moved around by the viewer, lasts indefinitely, depending on how long one wants to play with all the parts. There are no directions given, and the very randomness of the piece makes it diverting and fun.

Stills from “Certain Objects and Certain Systems” (video animation 7:23) by James Woodfill

After a minute or two, “Certain Objects and Certain Systems (7:23),” with its compilation of every-day materials such as wood and metal in a variety of moving geometric shapes, starts to look like a cocktail party for electronic nerds, who sometimes choose to acknowledge one another and sometimes not. Shadows flit by mysteriously on the walls, while various components attempt to interact. The buzzing background sounds add to the merriment, while also contributing to a sense that try as they might, collaboration and connection are not so easily achieved for Woodfill’s creations. There is whimsy, wit and a surprising amount of pathos here as this work underscores the struggles that can complicate human interactions.

Two other videos, “Color Checker (1:23)” and “Super Slow-Motion Static (2:02)” are short, exuberant and punk.

Woodfill’s art is characteristically elegant and cool, with a degree of emotional distancing. His new videos add a humanistic element that is genuinely disarming, and the viewer reaps the rewards. If we have to have robots as friends, I would choose these.

“Code Practice: Certain Objects and Certain Systems by James Woodfill” continues at art.josephneasegallery.com/woodfill until early December. Joseph Nease Gallery, 23 W. 1st St., Duluth, Minn., is open by appointment only during the pandemic. For more information, www.josephneasegallery.com or 218.481.7750.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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