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Art review: 'Bas Jan Ader: Suspended Between Laughter and Tears' at Pitzer College Art Galleries

November 2, 2010 |  7:00 pm

“Bas Jan Ader: Suspended Between Laughter and Tears” is one of those rare, perplexing exhibitions that’s more persuasive in print than in person.  Strange as it may seem, experiencing Ader’s works from a distance gets to the heart of his art. It speaks to the quiet desperation beating beneath the surfaces of his modest pieces, which give both comic and haunting resonance to his double-edged love of romance and absurdity.

Ader Fall II Ader is the James Dean of contemporary art, with a touch of Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and George Mallory also part of the mix. A handsome intellectual who was born in a small town in the Netherlands in 1942, at 19 Ader dropped out of art school in Amsterdam, hitchhiked to Morocco and signed on as a deckhand for a yacht headed to the U.S. The boat shipwrecked near L.A., where Ader stayed.

In six years, he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in art and began teaching at several Southern California colleges. He got married in Las Vegas, to Mary Sue Andersen, and became a prominent figure in what was then a hotbed of artistic experimentation.

Then he disappeared. And became a legend.

In 1975, Ader climbed aboard a sailboat not much longer or wider than a couple of bathtubs and embarked on a solo voyage across the Atlantic. The trip was meant to be the second segment of a three-part performance, “In Search of the Miraculous.” His capsized boat eventually turned up off the coast of Ireland. Ader was never heard from again. Nor was his body found.

At the Pitzer Galleries, independent curator Pilar Tompkins Rivas has brought together a good sampling of the 16-mm films and photographs that make up Ader’s scant oeuvre, as well as notebooks, journals, snapshots and other ephemera documenting his brief career. His ill-fated trip casts an indelible shadow over the works that preceded it, endowing them with more portent, mystery and fetishistic fascination than they would have if the young artist’s trans-Atlantic project had not failed.

Ader Fall I Ader’s best pieces are mundane, slight, evocative. A silent, 24-second, black-and-white film from 1970 (now transferred to digital video) opens with him seated on a chair on the top of an ordinary bungalow’s pitched roof. The action begins when Ader intentionally loses his balance and tumbles—slowly, poetically and with the awkward grace that recalls Buster Keaton’s slapstick antics—across the roof, over its edge and into the front yard, where he disappears into the shrubbery. Think Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void” (1960), minus the joy and without the delightfully blind optimism.

In a 19-second film, Ader rides a bike down an empty street and off a ledge into a canal in Amsterdam. In another, he dangles from a tree’s branch over a canal until he can hold on no long and falls into the water. At 1’44,” “Fall II (Amsterdam)” (1970) seems an eternity, every second charged with an exquisitely physical sense of anticipation.

Ader Broken Fall Organic
Less affective, more melodramatic and coy is “I’m Too Sad To Tell You” (1971), a 3’34” silent film that depicts the artist in close up, crying uncontrollably. Ader’s other films, showing him arranging flowers, going to great lengths to smash a handful of lightbulbs and reading a story about a boy who went over Niagara falls, are too unresolved to be memorable, much less to resonate in the imagination.

His photographs are repetitive. Most are diptychs—before-and-after shots that show him standing in a landscape and then facedown on the ground. They play on pity and sympathy but leave too much out of the picture to sustain interest or to have more than fleeting impact.

When Ader’s art succeeds, it lives in the mind and thrives in the mind’s-eye. It’s all about momentarily leaving the world behind and entering the imagination—where poetry takes precedence, literal reality gives way to literary significance and anything is possible.

The small catalog that accompanies the exhibition is a treasure. In many ways, it’s more effective than the exhibition, which gets bogged down with ephemera-packed vitrines and documentary evidence better suited to books than gallery presentations.

The worst, however, are the sculptures, videos and slideshows by the 10 contemporary artists Tompkins Rivas has included in the exhibition.

Martin Kersels Tripping 1(a) Except for Martin Kersels’ triptych depicting his 6-foot-6-inch, 280-pound self falling flat on his face on an LA sidewalk, these unimaginatively literal pieces lack the humor, deftness and poignancy of Ader’s conflicted art. All but Kersels’ come off as fanboy footnotes, excessively literal homages that are not only at odds with Ader’s absurdity-laced Romanticism, but also treat him as the hero he never wanted to be.

--David Pagel

(“Bas Jan Ader: Suspended Between Laughter and Tears,” Nichols Gallery and Lenzner Family Gallery, Pitzer College, 1050 N. Mills Ave., Claremont, Closed Sat.- Sun. Through Dec. 10. (909) 607-3143, Mondays-Fridays, through Dec. 10. www.pitzer.edu/artgalleries)

Images: First Three: Bas Jan Ader, Fall II (Amsterdam); Fall I (Los Angeles); Broken Fall (Organic Amsterdamse Bos); Credit Pitzer Gallery. Fourth image: Martin Kersels, Tripping 1 (a). Credit ACME.

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