Matthew Stadler


When Mixtec artisans painted the small baroque church at Tonantzintla they filled the walls with pale brown, flat-faced cherubs and stocky saints bedecked with feathered Mixtec headdresses. They transubstantiated themselves, via art, into the spiritual matter of the new, conquering church. It was not a simple thing. Their act was at once a capitulation and a subversion. Lee Krist’s portraits of his friends are similarly complex.

Krist films his friends, subjects the film to all sorts of handiwork (drawing, writing, tinting, scarring, as well as conventional editing) and then shows the result. Because the camera and projector are hand-cranked (35 mm) the spectacle of presentation is skewed by the presence of Krist, bending solicitously over the machinery. Lit by the blowback of the projection bulb, he labors toward a rhythm that can bring the halting image to life on the screen. Krist films and projects at about 3 or 4 frames per second, so the film only hits its stride sporadically, flickering forever at the threshold between stillness and motion.

The portraits are uncanny, in the sense Freud meant. There is the endlessly repeating spectacle of the death of the subject, moving and then stopping, moving then stopping, sometimes arrested long enough to burn. There are Krist’s defacements, which include the occasional substitution of his own face for that of the sitter. There is Krist himself, a living body in the room with us, preeminent, willing his friends mechanically into view.

Krist calls his portraits the “Big Film Series.” It is literally true — 35 mm stock is discernibly huge — and it ironically asserts that these miniature portraits of unknowns (to us, anyway) are “big films.” What is a “big film” — that expensive, hugely orchestrated thing that, by implication, dwarfs the thousands of “little films” artists make? And big for whom? Within the world that matters, that of the close circle of friends, Krist’s films are inarguably enormous.

If friendship is indeed a force that gives us meaning, Krist is ambivalent about the news. His portraits — as much hostile as they are loving — remake the contested terrain of friendship as a singular territory entirely under the artist’s dominion. And then they go one important step further: Having invited his friends to sit and be filmed, having worked over the film by hand, having cut and spliced and scratched and painted their images, he brings the films back and shows them in public, to his friends. What will they make of them? This moment enacts the deepest currents of artistic collectivity and solitude more completely than any other work I know.

Matthew Stadler is a novelist (Landscape: Memory, Allan Stein) and editor and cofounder of Clear Cut Press. His writing appears in Domus, Frieze, Artforum, Dwell, The Stranger, and many other publications.