Crossing Brooklyn: William Lamson

William Lamson, Action for the Delaware, 2011

Through January 4, the Brooklyn Museum will present a major survey of contemporary Brooklyn art, featuring more than one hundred works from 35 artists. Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond includes work in virtually every medium, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, linked only by place and by an engagement with the modern world. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be rolling out profiles of artists who appear in the exhibit. You can read the rest here.

Earlier this year, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded a prestigious fellowship to the interdisciplinary artist William Lamson, calling his work a “diverse practice [that] involves working with elemental forces to create durational performative actions.” Lamson has two videos in Crossing Brooklyn that operate in that tradition: in both Action for the Delaware and Untitled (Mylar Blanket), wind and water are instigators and locations of action.

Action for the Delaware opens on a tranquil shot of the Delaware River; the only sounds are occasional bird calls. After a few seconds, Lamson drifts into the frame from the bottom edge. It appears that he’s standing on the surface of the water. In reality, Lamson is standing on a raft that has been calibrated to his weight so that when he stands on it, it sinks just below the water, leaving the soles of his shoes at surface level. For a minute, we watch Lamson float idly down the river. It is extremely calming.

Suddenly, this rapture is broken by a passage of video in which Lamson is in the water, kicking furiously to stay afloat, and trying to remount the raft, with some difficulty. Cut—now he’s back on the raft, standing calmly atop the surface of the water. Then he’s back in the water again; the camera pulls closer to its subject, the waves lapping at the lens.

This toggle between scenes lasts the duration of the 14-minute video. The passages of Lamson struggling to recalibrate are sometimes amusing, and sometimes stressful; contrasted with the serene images of him drifting down the river, they put the lie to the illusion the artist has created. It’s like a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the work, a glimpse that is only possible in durational art—you can’t peer into a painting to see the painter making and erasing lines.

In Action for the Delaware, Lamson was interested in the idea of “creating a buoyant device that would allow me to occupy a liminal space in the landscape, the surface of a river, and then allow the river to completely determine my course downstream,” he tells me. “As the viewer sees later in the video, these moments of balance and equilibrium are tenuous and easily disrupted.”

Lamson is also fascinated by the artists’ role as an “alchemist, transforming materials and creating phenomenological experiences for the viewer.” Perhaps the best example of this is a 2012 installation Lamson built at Storm King Art Center. Titled Solarium, the piece was a colorized glass house in which 162 panels made of sugar were cooked to different temperatures and then sealed between two panes of window glass. “The space functioned as both an experimental greenhouse, growing three species of miniature citrus trees, and a meditative environment,” Lamson explains. “As the plants grew, and some of the panels leaked, attracting insects, the piece became its own ecosystem.”

Compared to Action for the Delaware, Untitled (Mylar Blanket) is brief—a mere three minutes, all of which is given to a tracking shot of a mylar emergency blanket tumbling across a dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert,  propelled only by the wind. Although it is less staged than Action for the Delaware, the video is no less an artistic intervention with elemental forces in nature. “As an artist, I am looking for these kinds of conditions, where my actions can function as a catalyst for something else to happen.”

Lamson was born Arlington, Virginia, and earned his MFA from Bard College. He moved to Brooklyn in 2001 to make a career in commercial photography, before realizing that he was “more interested doing things than photographing them.” He teaches in the MFA photography program at Parsons.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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