Screen Interactions: Howardena Pindell’s Video Drawings by Olivia Gauthier

Television and its simulations.

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Howardena Pindell, Video Drawings: Swimming, 1975. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Anixter Art Acquisition Fund. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Howardena Pindell’s retrospective, What Remains To Be Seen, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) spans more than five decades. Pindell, who began as a figurative painter, turned to a process-oriented practice around 1967, the year she graduated from Yale, favoring abstraction and mixed-media materials, of which her hole punches are the best known. Her dot paintings, as they are often referred to, use the dots from a hole-puncher on large abstract canvases, adding texture and depth to the surface. However, as the exhibition makes evident, she has explored many materials and is a meticulous maker who also takes pleasure in repetition. She methodically repeats actions such as drawing vectors or punching holes, which in turn meditatively investigates order, calling into question the stability of systems that govern daily life and conceptions of reality. In repeating lines, numbers, etc., she calls attention to the relative trivialness of certain logics that are accepted as truth.

This deconstruction of structures of authority is specifically evident in her Video Drawing series, which she began in 1973 and has returned to throughout her career. At MCA, the Video Drawings are presented in both the first and second half of the exhibition, which highlights Pindell’s reengagement with this idiosyncratic method. The first iteration of the Video Drawings began in 1973 when she purchased a television for her studio at the suggestion of her eye doctor. At that point her studio had no natural light, so the television became an electronic illumination source and focal point for her to give her eyes a rest from the meticulous work she was making. In her downtime watching the television screen, Pindell became interested in the nuanced politics of the programming she was consuming. The television then became a conduit for a new artistic output. For some time Pindell had been drawing vectors and numbers on acetate, and soon noticed that because of the electric static of the television screen, the acetate naturally clung to the surface of the screen, which Pindell then photographed.

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Howardena Pindell, Video Drawings: Hockey, 1975. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Anixter Art Acquisition Fund. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The resulting images are aesthetic and analytic forays into the motion of the screen, especially in the early versions, which are mainly of sporting events, such as Video Drawings: Baseball (1973–76). In this work, Pindell captured the momentum of a baseball player with arrows suggesting movements and numbers suggesting strategic calculations, both of which allude to a player’s velocity and direction. However, as in her dot paintings, the numbers and arrows are also arbitrary marks. In these works, Pindell points toward the rapidity of media consumption as well as the materiality of televisions that send mass-media messages from the exterior world into our domestic lives. As such Pindell aims a critical lens on culture, politics, and leisure as developed in the postwar era.

Pindell’s Video Drawings, as with her larger practice, became more pointedly political after a near-death experience in 1979. When she returned to the Video Drawings in 1988, she photographed images of political events captured from the news to make her War series. In War: The “L” Word (George Bush) (1988), she captured the soon-to-be-president during a speech given the year he was elected. Alongside the arrows and numbers, Pindell began to introduce text in this version of the Video Drawings, placing “LIAR” in all caps underneath Bush’s chin. Also in this series are images of violence and atrocities from wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, particularly the use of poisonous gases. In her return to the Video Drawings, Pindell calls more direct attention to the complexities of technology as related to social and political conflict, subverting the ideal of television as a democratizing force.

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Howardena Pindell, War: The “L” Word (George Bush), 1988. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The most recent Video Drawing presented in What Remains To Be Seen features news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In Video Drawings: News (2007), she overlays acetate with arrows going in haphazard directions onto an image of a CNN weatherman describing the trajectory of the devastating hurricane in an attempt to engage critically with this cataclysmic event.

The Video Drawings are one of Pindell’s methods of visually deconstructing information, in this case televisual information. Though it is now blatantly clear that television is not neutral, when Pindell began making these works, there was still a general optimism about television and its potential as a populist technology. Through her aesthetic investigation of the medium, Pindell solicits the viewer to look critically at mass media, and she warns against accepting the homogenizing aspects of television programming. In this series, as in the rest of her work, Pindell aims to break down power structures by calling attention to their construction while simultaneously challenging accepted forms and subject matter.

Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until May 20.

Olivia Gauthier is a freelance writer, curator, and MA Candidate in Art History at Hunter College.

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