The newest and largest work in Charles Atlas’s recent exhibition, “The Illusion of Democracy,” is projected on the rear wall as you enter the exhibition space. Titled 143652 (2012), it stretches from one side of the gallery to the other and floor to ceiling. The numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6, appear in various combinations while a vertical line of light scans the numbers back and forth, from right to left and from left to right. This gray scale projection is occasionally visited by vibrant shades of orange, blue or purple, which fill the screen, creating a projected Barnett Newman-like painting.
This grand single-channel projection was made especially to fit the wall of the new Luhring Augustine Gallery in Bushwick. With the exhibition’s three projections, Atlas constructed the space to function as a visual-surround-system. On the left upon entering the space is Painting by Numbers (2011), a psychedelic flow of numbers. The numbers swirl, line up, and explode into small numeric particles, creating an illusion of outer space. On the other side of the gallery is the third installation, Plato’s Alley (2008). The changing variations of vertical and horizontal white lines eventually create a grid, and the numbers 1 to 6 become its inhabitants.
Born in 1949 in St. Louis, Atlas began his film career in the mid 1970s, collaborating with Merce Cunningham and using experimental film to document dance and music. Atlas describes his experimental films of the artists and performers he collaborated with as portraits, emphasizing not only the subjects’ performative skills but also their unique and colorful personalities. His resumé includes artistic collaborations with such artists as Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Douglas Dunn, Marina Abramovic, Yvonne Rainer, Mika Tajima, The New Humans, and Antony and the Johnsons. His current fascination with digital media began in 2003, when he started to experiment with video accompaniments to installations and live dance performances. And as the technology became more available, Atlas pursued his experimentation through computer animation programs.
Using numbers as the formalistic means for artistic expression is a unique choice. In recent interviews Atlas explains that six is the maximum number of digits that a person can remember at a time. He compares his projections with dance, making cabarets of numeric “solos.” The rhythm he talks about can be felt when experiencing the two smaller works. Painting by Numbers creates a feeling of classical music, or contemplative “spacemusic,” while Plato’s Alley’s flashing grid makes you feel like you are witnessing the inside of a techno music system.
“The Illusion of Democracy” is not an ordinary exhibition. You can’t avoid feeling this is a part of a futuristic film, where a tiny you is standing in the middle of a numerical hallucination, hypnotized and scared at the same time. The title might suggest a critical view of technological progress, which Atlas turns into both a calming and an inhuman experience. Being the pioneer figure that he is in film and video, Atlas, I suspect, is ahead of his time concerning digital-installation art. I just might have to view this show again in the millennium promised by futurists (flying cars, silver suits) to be able to fully grasp it.