By Billy Rubin
Published in Vox Vernacular
Feb. 25, 2014
Oursler was primarily involved with painting when he was introduced to the Portapak, the first portable video recording device, while at Cal Arts in the mid-1970s. He immediately saw correlations between the two activities of painting and video recording and began to combine both mediums. Indeed, keenly aware of how the black-and-white visual medium can transform our perception, he often painted and modeled artwork while looking at it live through the camera and video monitor. Oursler discovered that in video space he could use two- and three-dimensional planes compositionally as well as graphically in order to expand his visual ideas to include performative, kinetic and sonic elements. Adopting a simple form of shorthand, he produced a number of short, distinctly punk tapes, bearing witness to influences from Mad Magazine, actionists, television, conceptual art, George Melies and expressionist film. Oursler has often commented on the hypnotic quality of the moving image and our desire to confer on it both narrative and emotive status. Although these works sometimes include narrative or poetic elements combined with voiceovers and sound effects, they often take the form of installations, visually playing with the basics of optical literacy and shunning traditional TV and film grammar. From his earliest video work, Oursler explores our fascination with entering a trance-like state via cinematic and television screenspace. The viewer is invited to engage with characters that are simply formed, using almost anything from a hotdog to a tiny speck of dust, hands and other body parts, animal or insect. Yet in the painted sets all notions of character and location are called into question by the shift in scale, gravity and photographic space. Through the immediacy of the works, marked by Kabuki theatre, the artist strives to activate the viewer by making them constantly aware of their willingness to suspend disbelief. Kenneth White described Oursler's early works: "Oursler anthropomorphizes a clay mound with a light bulb as a head and two wires for arms. Another character is embodied by twisted pipe-cleaner and two C batteries: breasts bound in steel wire. The artist in voice-over: 'Bad things had happened to both of them. Empty, life goes on... until... they needed each other.' The television is an analogous trap, all the more horrifically fraught for its bare explicitness, for its open view turned paradoxically claustrophobic.
"Sadistic humor and exploitation underlie Oursler's crude exaggerations of social interaction. The artist stages scenarios of perversion, distress, and exhaustion. Performances of distorted etiquette within irreverent contexts highlight the arbitrary logic of cultural norms. His early experiments are similar in form to the vignettes produced throughout the 1970s by William Wegman with his Weimaraner dogs and Terry Fox's The Children's Tapes (1974). However Oursler's work exhibits a more sustained tone of aggression than that found among his contemporaries. His early videotapes are bound by a preoccupation with the sinister possibilities of interpersonal relations. Oursler asserts dysfunction in the diverse situations encountered by his raw avatars. Dissonances between interior and exterior spaces of the home, the mind, and the television dominate Oursler's work."