I have seen John Houck’s work in an art fair booth and in a small group at the Jewish Museum. Most of this work had connections to things I like, specifically Tauba Auerbach Mesh Moire images and Butt Johnson’s investigation of intricate, interrupted line. I know nearly nothing about him besides what his CV and his gallery’s website have told me. Currently, Houck has a video piece called Portrait Landscape (from Object Classifier series), 2015 that looks nothing like these works in a show at Hauser and Wirth (on 69th near Madison) called Passing Leap.
According to the Press Release for Passing Leap: “John Houck’s work re-imagines Antonioni’s classic film ‘Blowup’, in which the protagonist discovers an unexpected story hiding in the periphery of his own photographs. Houck has hacked film-editing and facial recognition software to refocus the film frame and guide the viewer’s attention toward an unnoticed narrative in an iconic film about the fallacy of visual evidence.”
This is all certainly true. The idea of Antonioni’s Blow-Up that Houck uses is the mystery recorded and only witnessed by the lens. The brush Houck paints with is the idea of searching for the unseen. He has hacked the software, causing this constant panning zoom to occur in which small blocks of the film darken while searching for facial patterns. Sometimes it lands on the characters face, but often also on patches of grass or plaster or fence. The process of automatic searching that the computer executes on the shifting film frame becomes a relief in our own viewing. The computer does the work and finds things we would not. The machine drives the viewer. I enjoyed the searching, being led down a path that I would not have been able to go down. The active viewer is no longer you, the burden has been lifted and you are told where to look.
It makes me want to rewatch Blow-Up and in fact I went and watched Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Without going into a long explanation, The Conversation is a film about a recorded conversation. It plays again and again throughout the film. It is the thread that becomes the entire fabric of the film. Gene Hackman’s obsession over the conversation he has recorded mirrors some of the mystery Blow-Up provides.
On seeing some of the The Conversation again, I had some of the same feelings that Houck’s version of Blow-Up offered. I got the sense that I would always be at a remove from the subject, and there would be no true resolution, but that I would need to stay close to it. Houck’s Portrait Landscape is manufactured and edited, hacked into something new makes for a quiet meditation on film and obsession.