Installation view of David Hartt’s “On Exactitude in Science (Watts)” at Kimball Art Center
When I remember my favorite movie scenes, it’s often because of something particularly revealing that an actor does. But in the hands of a really good director, there is always another actor in the scene whose work I may not remember — may not even consciously notice — but whose work precedes those I do notice and may be far more telling. Perhaps the camera holds a shot for a several seconds, until I become aware that through its lens I am fixated, staring at something. Then it wheels about and fixes on something else, and I understand what the character sees and how they are thinking. The camera in those minutes reveals itself as the most important actor. An enthusiastic artist might be moved by such a moment to copy what was seen, and by so doing to show me something about the original director’s work that I might otherwise have missed. And so what if I haven’t seen the original film, don’t know the first filmmaker? What then? Can I learn something new and meaningful about a place or a person even though I haven’t seen the movie that inspired the second artist in the first place?
These esoteric questions become central concerns while watching “On Exactitude in Science (Watts),” an installation currently at the Kimball in Park City that David Hartt has built around his own remarkable 15-minute video with that name. Like any fine artist, Hartt’s subject is human experience, but in “On Exactitude” his choices, the things he puts on display, come about in response to the achievement of a filmmaker whose work is probably unknown to most of his potential viewers. Hartt envisions his video as one voice in a conversation in which Charles Burnett’s breakout film “Killer of Sheep” is the other voice. Does that mean that naive viewers of his video can’t appreciate what he shows us? I hope not, because this is the most serious, slowly-building, and ultimately moving work of art I can remember seeing.
Of course every artist has something that prompts the work she, or in this case he, eventually makes. But if the work says something important, it will go beyond that dialog of the artist with his inspiration to say something that stands on its own. Charles Burnett has been described as one of the greatest filmmakers whose work few have seen, but rather than link his name to his films, with their emphasis on how families fare in modern life and which also include “My Brother’s Wedding,” “To Sleep With Anger,” “The Glass Shield,” and “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation,” it might be more helpful to mention the creative artists who have sought to work with him. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was among his early supporters. Carl Lumbly, Danny Glover, Ice Cube, Lori Petty, Martin Scorsese, Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry, and the Disney Studios were among those who frequently collaborated with him as writer, director, and actor. But in this moment the measure of his achievement is his impact on David Hartt, and somewhere during their 15 minutes spent with Hartt, viewers may well feel what made him devote so much attention and effort specifically to Burnett’s vision of Watts.
The first thing to notice about “On Exactitude in Science” is the format. The video plays vertically, so that instead of a panorama, a vista, a vast perspective, the viewer is given a tall, narrow view that focuses attention on one subject, seen in its individual context. There’s a floor or the earth below, a ceiling or tree or sky above. If the contents of a shelf make up the subject, there’s another, similar shelf above or below. This choice allows seeing things in a context that doesn’t distract, and if viewers don’t recognize what Hartt is quoting from Burnett, they still see what both men presumably saw.
The second thing is the emphasis on structural setting rather than action. Here the camera does all the moving. The inhabitants of this Watts, California, are conspicuous in their absence, leaving the viewer to contemplate the surprisingly lovely places where they live. And let’s just say this: take away the overwhelming proportion of drug dealers, whores, pimps, lowlifes, and frightened civilians who infest Hollywood’s vision of South Central neighborhoods and what remains to be seen are the same things we might see in our own vicinity: solid, well-maintained (if generally smaller) homes, entrepreneurial enterprises, landscaping and the botanical dealers who supply it, and cars — after their homes, the largest investment most Americans make. Take a moment to think about what minority citizens prevented by decades of deliberate government misbehavior to own their homes have done with their cars.
Here’s a taste of the “scientific exactitude” Hartt invokes in his title. Anyone who’s spent time in trendy shopping districts will have seen a store that’s going out of business or is being remodeled. Thousands of dollars worth of fixtures, gondolas and end caps, elaborately false walls, and even the carpets are taken out and tossed into a giant dumpster. In that moment, the realization may come that the appeal of merchandise comes as much from a million-dollar presentation as from the goods themselves. So now follow David Hartt through some hardscrabble stores in Watts, where rows of boxes or jars on plain metal shelves must speak for themselves. Look at the colorful packaging they depend on. Then look at the restaurant, so lively when open, that when shut can be seen to be little more than a table and chairs. What does the artist-scientist learn from this? Think about how much our wealthy industrial giants depend on minority participation, and how little return they make on it. Think about the redundant wealthy and the poor who seethe with new ideas. Without the world-class athletes, musicians, and entertainers, without the humor, fashion, linguistic panache, and literature that, when they’re not on the frontline themselves, provide so much of what undergirds it, what would fill those glossy emporiums and showplaces? And how much of the ill-will that bedevils us today results from denial of our mutual need?
None of this should be misunderstood to suggest that “On Exactitude in Science (Watts)” contains an angry diatribe. It’s precisely the opposite, and that’s what makes it so powerful. These mundane scenes of suburban architecture and lush plant life allow viewers a space in which to calm down and marvel at some unexpectedly familiar and surprisingly plangent views. Some of the video’s most captivating moments come when the scenes the camera beholds are transformed, via computer I assume, into pure light. Then the buildings, furniture, landscaping become transparent as the camera passes not just among, but through them. Then the mundane scenes we’ve been watching become transcendent, and as happens so rarely outside the many GCI fantasies thrown up before our increasingly jaded eyes, commensurate with our capacity to wonder at the miracles we encounter every day.
David Hartt: On Exactitude in Science (Watts), Kimball Art Center, Park City, through Jan. 2, 2022.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.