“Tacita Dean: The Friar’s Doodle,” a meditative and engrossing four-piece exhibit made up of three gouache on gelatin silver prints and the eponymous 16 mm silent film, occupies the Gallery for New Media in Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Centered around a doodle given to Tacita Dean by a friar when she was a schoolgirl, as well as the etched doodles of Benedictine monks in the walls of Santo Domingo de Silos, a monastery in northern Spain, Dean explores the connections between these works and the small act of focus that can lead to understanding and maybe even getting a glimpse of the divine.
Dean is an English visual artist best known for her work in 16 mm film. Trained as a painter, her films often are characterized as contemplative, using long takes and steady angles in contrast to the fast cutting often seen in mainstream movies. “The Friar’s Doodle” pushes this characterization further, examining the work needed to focus on a task, whether that is watching a film or praying.
The gallery is dark and quiet except for the uninterrupted whirring of the projector, which could be a stand-in for chanting monks. A single chair is placed to the right just in front of the projector, giving someone the opportunity to sit down. While 13 minutes isn’t a long time, the film is on a loop and it is not immediately apparent how to tell where it begins.
Shot with a rostrum camera, which is designed to animate a still picture or object, the film is a series of extreme close-ups of the doodle, actively moving along the paths, spirals and shapes of the drawing. The movement imparts a sense of place like a maze or a labyrinth to be understood and followed. Along with the camera, viewers travel the rough lines and weird geometry of the doodle, much like monks would walk in a cloister, with no exit, and with only contemplation of this interior world.
Watching it a few times, the patterns in the drawing begin to coalesce around a full image, one that can only be held in the mind for a short time, and is never shown on screen. By looking, instead of just seeing, like the artist implores in the exhibit notes, a different understanding can be reached, whether that be on the importance of film as a still viable and vibrant medium or the faith in a higher power.
The three still photos have rough textures carved in gritty stone, which contrast with the smooth lines of the doodle fragments on the prints. Together, the images capture moments of illumination from the film, driving home the similarities and devotion to the work and the focus necessary for looking at film and for a life lived in religious service.
At the very least, “The Friar’s Doodle” is not to be rushed. Spending time with the film, and perhaps making use of the chair for more than one loop, can bring a level of delight that few other films can achieve, and may even encourage a longer look at other art, and life as well.
What: “Tacita Dean: The Friar’s Doodle”
When: Through Jan. 11
Where: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.