The work of James Coleman (Ireland, 1941) is key to understanding the vital role that screened images play in contemporary art, as the bridge between language and images in conceptual practices since 1970, or between narration and experience in certain notions about audience in contemporary art. Although the artist's background in theatre is an axiomatic reference in the critical literature, its relevance, necessary for understanding most of his works, remains little explored. In close readings of a few key works, Rachel Haidu discusses the importance of staging, dramatic narration and the role of the actor, in James Coleman's work and in that of other artists influenced by his filmic mechanisms.
This lecture and guided visit pay special attention to his introduction of synchronized vocals in the early works Slide Piece (1972-73) and Clara and Dario (1975), and his use of space in the later works Photograph (1998-1999) and IN I T I A L S (1993-94). Haidu positions Coleman’s deployment of theatrical ideas against anxieties regarding what theater represents, particularly powerful in the 1960s and ’70s. Other works from the early 1970s balance their theatricality with a structuralist approach to the filmic or video space: Yvonne Rainer's Lives of Performers (1972) and Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) are two key examples. But from his earliest works to his most recent, Coleman has not only avoided this position, he has rejected simplistic associations between theater and spectacle.
Rachel Haidu, teaches in the Department of Art and Art History and in the doctoral program on Cultural and Visual Studies at the University of Rochester, in upstate New York. She is the author of The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers, 1964-1976 (MIT press, 2010).