Frank Gillette came to video from abstract painting in 1966, after completing what he termed "a series of large severe paintings." At the same time his reading led him to speculations about the relationships between art and science. His special interests—in taxonomy and ecology—were to inform his video work of the next several years. To the scientist, taxonomy is the invention of categories, such as genus and species, to identify relationships among biological entities. To Gillette, however, the notion of taxonomy provided a way of classifying and grouping objects and ideas not on scientific but on esthetic grounds. At the same time Gillette saw aspects of ecology—the economy and effectiveness of biological activity—as metaphors for human psychological rather than physical survival, Engaged in these conceptual relationships and equipped with the eye and esthetic concerns of a painter, Gillette launched into a series of video undertakings in the late 1960s.
Prior to Aransas, included in this exhibition, Gillette made several other video tapes and installations based on natural landscapes. In his Tetragramaton (1972), six channels of black and white images shot in the dunes and tidal marshes of Eastern Long Island were exhibited in a circle of 30 monitors, arranged in three triangular groups of ten. Two years later Gillette completed Quiddiids (1974), a three-channel color work shot among the wooded ponds, pine forests and shoreline of Cape Cod. In both of these works, Gillette's editing and camera movement group aspects of nature not by a scientific method of classification but rather by visual association—a closeup view, for example, of a small bit of foam drifting in a tidal pool, recalling a cloud drifting across the sky. Gillette has remarked that primitive man, too, must have made such observations and associations. In both of these video works Gillette uses a readily apparent strategy of long, often close-up views of nature which sometimes suddenly zoom back. This kind of "moving" image makes the viewer distinctly conscious of the process of viewing—we are made emphatically aware that our shifting perceptions are distinct from what we are perceiving. Thus Gillette incorporates our viewing process as a critical aspect of the work, along with the artist's taxonomic and ecological associations.
Aransas (1978) clearly shares many of the concerns of Gillette's earlier landscape video works. Aransas is a county along the coast of Texas near Corpus Christi, on the Gulf of Mexico, an often marshy littoral with a string of off-shore islands. Gillette spent several weeks videotaping the woods, marshes and wildlife of the area. He chose 34 locations for shooting and planned the taping patterns for each site. This material, extensively edited, is presented on six monitors arranged in a circle, with two monitors of the north and south locations, and single monitors of east and west. The framing and movement of the camera and the shifting of locations surrounding the viewer on the monitors created complex space which represents not the Aransas location, but a set of perceptions about that location. The sounds of nature-birds calling, the wind moving through foliage—which Gillette also employed in his earlier landscape installations, are presented on six audio channels.
At first encounter, it might seem that Aransas (as well as Gillette's other landscape pieces) is conceived systematically with little personal inflection in choice and use of imagery. And certainly more than any other working the exhibition, Aransas reflects the concerns of structural art of the 1970s. But it is in fact a highly personal meditation on human perception, and the importance of nature in that process. Using a process that he has likened to alchemy, Gillette has engaged the Aranson landscape to reflect on man's place in the world. In this sense, Gillette's work lies directly in the tradition of 19th-century American landscape painters, where nature becomes, as it were, the measure of man.
William D. Judson
Curator at Carnegie Museum of Art / 1988
Aransas / Curator's Statement