ArtWeekend

Inquiry Meets Imagination in Jen Durbin’s “Jackie Series”

In a series of drawings derived from frames of the Zapruder film, Durbin tracks the shifting spatial orientation of Jackie Kennedy’s pink pillbox hat — and by implication, Mrs. Kennedy’s bodily response to the unfolding horror.

Jen Durbin, “90 Moves in Nine Seconds, The Jackie Series 2001-2017” (detail) (all images courtesy Art 3 unless stated otherwise)

The 486 frames of Double-8mm film shot by a Dallas dressmaker (and immigrant from Russia) named Abraham Zapruder on November 22, 1963, reputedly constitute the most thoroughly analyzed footage in the history of motion pictures. Thanks to the Zapruder film, the blurred, eerily silent image of President Kennedy’s head bursting into a bloody smudge is lodged deep in the nation’s psyche.

In recent years, Jen Durbin has made something intelligent, beautiful, and quite affecting out of her obsession with the film, using as her central motif the pink pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore as the presidential motorcade rolled past Dealey Plaza. In a series of drawings derived from frames of the film, the artist tracks the shifting spatial orientation of the hat — and by implication, Mrs. Kennedy’s bodily response to the unfolding horror. The resulting work, 90 Moves in Nine Seconds (The Jackie Series 2015-2017), is on view at ART 3 in Bushwick through June 25. The exhibition is a must-see.

Installation view of “Jen Durbin: 90 Moves in Nine Seconds” (2017), ART 3, Brooklyn (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Consisting primarily of large sculptures based on the drawings, Durbin’s extraordinary project fuses the spirit of inquiry — into time, space, representation, and perception — with a personal reimagining of an historical moment that, having been dissected ad infinitum, one would have thought exhausted. But contrary to expectations the subject matter might raise, the work is fascinatingly alive and vibrant, even oddly (given its source) playful and graceful. Despite an unmistakable undercurrent of malice aforethought, this fine-tuned exhibition is exhilarating to behold.

The series’ installation in a warehouse loading dock outfitted with glaring flood lamps ratchets up the atmosphere of menace, but never does the tenor of the exhibition risk melodrama. Rather, it calmly posits a vision of sculpture as a three-dimensional interpretation of a series of two-dimensional representations of an event that unfolded in four dimensions.

The event nearly didn’t happen at all. According to statements by those close to the action, Mrs. Kennedy, who was not fond of traveling, consented to go to Texas only because her popularity and public image as a style icon was an asset to her husband’s reelection effort in a region deeply skeptical of, and outrightly hostile toward, the Kennedy administration and its burgeoning “Camelot” mythos. (Eighteen months earlier, the President had taken obvious delight in introducing himself to a group of dignitaries as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”) For many Americans, the First Lady’s pink suit, an American-made Chanel knockoff, symbolized deliverance from the drab Eisenhower/Nixon era of the 1950s. Still splashed with JFK’s blood, it is preserved in the National Archives and Records Administration building. The hat is lost.

Installation view of a still from the Zapruder film (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Durbin memorializes this vanished relic, via analysis of a crucial section of the 26-second Zapruder film. An 11-part drawing, “90 Moves in Nine Seconds, The Jackie Series 2001-2017” (dated 2001-2017; graphite and gouache on paper, sheet size 24.5 by 18 inches), breaks it down, frame by frame: a vertical strip through the center of the sheet delineates — in a recondite but obviously rigorous manner — the incremental changes in the images constituting the film. The presence of a methodical approach is clear, even if the method itself is not; the numbered, pink-and-white frames read from the bottom of the sheet (starting with frame 222) to the top, the direction that film stock runs through a projector; abundant pencil notations (“Jackie notices Gov. Connally turning around”) and sketches are keyed to specific points in the sequence. Even Zapruder’s camera angle seems to be accounted for, translating his left-to-right panning shot into an upward-ticking pencil line that enters each frame from the right, turning the sequence into an imagined aerial view of the assassination. The series ends with frame 430, after which the image is barely legible, the hat indiscernible.

Jen Durbin, “double damsels” (detail) (2017)

Of course, backstory doesn’t mean much if the resulting artworks, as vehicles of the research, don’t hold their own in visual and experiential terms. The Jackie Series does, masterfully. From the drawings come the sculpture and its immediately impressive interplay of spatial and tactile complexities. The most commonly used materials are wood (including repurposed chairs), wire, plaster, paper, plastic, reeds, rubber, and paint; Durbin makes occasional use of Plexiglas, silicone, sand, grass, wheat, bamboo, rocks, clay, papier-mâché, foam board, graphite, fabric, monofilament, needles, and clothespins. These are fashioned into elaborate freestanding works that often tower over the viewer and/or occupy considerable floor space. In a nod to the figurative tradition, most involve a distinct base of some kind — though one work, titled “stack” (2015), extends continuously from floor to ceiling.

Recurring throughout is a life-size version of that vanished pink hat, usually in the form of a hollow coil of felted mohair, but in some cases made of painted plaster. One or more copies appear in every sculpture, per Durbin’s method. In such bristling works as “’The 1-2′ (Scattershot)” (2017), thin rods, longer slats, and truncated arcs imply intersecting lines of force — human effort at cross-purposes? — and interpenetrating trajectories, punctuated by smallish, oddly shaped lumps of matter and discombobulated chair caning. The literalness of the images of pink (and here, also white) hats suspended in the swirling abstraction is arresting, even without the supporting narrative of midday mayhem in Dallas.

Jen Durbin, “double damsels” (2017)

Nevertheless, the work’s textual supplements insist on their relevance. An illustrated handout available to visitors reveals that the 11-foot-high “double damsels” (2017), a soaring V-shape cantilevered off a carton-sized (though visually massive) gray box supported on four paint cans, “renders the moment when Jackie started to hoist herself up from the car seat, as Jack’s body began to slump forward.” But one of the beauties of The Jackie Series is that it is not strictly necessary for the viewer to follow the precise correspondences between the sources and the artwork itself — the fertilizer and the flower, in the words of Gaston Bachelard — to have a complete experience of the work. Unlike more purely conceptual artists, such as the great Charles Gaines, whose rigorously rules-based work requires prior information to unlock, The Jackie Series hits at both the cerebral and visceral levels.

The stunning installation has something to do with that impact. Seemingly improvised lighting consisting of low-end clamp lamps affixed to the walls —some at or below eye level — cast ominous shadows all around and complicate the process of focusing on work, slowing the viewer’s read of the relationship among parts. Without the press release, would I have thought of Lee Harvey Oswald, shackled and blinking into the spotlights’ glare after his arrest? Maybe not, but everywhere is that deer-in-the-headlights feeling of dread. From some angles, the shadows cast by “F. 313 (frame 313)” (2017) merge seamlessly with the object itself. It is a beguiling effect, even if you don’t happen to know that frame 313 of the Zapruder film captures the moment following the fatal bullet’s impact.

Jen Durbin, “F. 313 (frame 313)” (2017) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Filmic sources for paintings and drawings are not unusual; Durbin’s annotated drawings remind me of the movie-derived, textually augmented works on paper that Dawn Clements has done for many years. But a similar tradition in sculpture is hard to identify. A maquette of “stack” in the gallery’s office gives a glimpse into a crucial aspect of the artist’s process, that translation from two back to three dimensions. The ART 3 show includes the seven extant sculptures of the planned 11. (For this space, some pieces had to be reconfigured; “stack”, for example, lost the top ten feet or so — which are keyed to frames 264 to 381.) Thus The Jackie Series is approaching completion, and — as effective as the current installation is, in its way — we should hope this terrific project will soon be shown at a venue with enough elbow room to allow seeing it in its entirety.

Jen Durbin: 90 Moves in Nine Seconds (The Jackie Series 2001-2017) continues at ART 3 (109 Ingraham Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 30.

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