Bruce Nauman, The Oregonian
Bruce Nauman at the Cooley Gallery, Reed College, Portland, Oregon
Originally published in The Oregonian

Much of the earliest work by American artist Bruce Nauman is marked by a less-is-more aesthetic, in which austerely minimal sculptures, photographs and environments investigate sweeping existential quandaries -- from fear of failure to basic phenomenal inquiries -- with unusual precision. 

It could be argued that Nauman's most extreme manifestation of this tendency toward reduction and withdrawal is the group of films he shot in his studio in the late 1960s, using both 16 mm film and then-new videotape technology. 

In these works, the artist activates his body as sculptural subject, filming himself in his studio as he performs solitary activities, which register somewhere between systematic tests and esoteric games. In the seven films included in the wonderful "Bruce Nauman: Basements, Early Studio Experiments, 1967-1969," we see the artist, for instance, play the violin as fast as he can ("Violin Film #1," 1967-68), mechanically dance around a square on his studio floor to a tick-tocking metronome ("Square Dance," 1967-68), and, for a full hour, repeatedly fall backward into a corner ("Bouncing in the Corner No. 1," 1968). 

It's tempting to interpret these films as a response to the young artist's anxiety about using time productively and coping with mental blocks. Certainly, some of Nauman's exercises suggest a stir-crazy prisoner inventing imaginative distractions from the fact of his confinement. 

But, in actuality, they are precise and carefully controlled compositions. For instance, the artist undermines the presumed documentary quality of the medium through framing techniques that often occlude or complicate the image. In "Bouncing in the Corner No. 1," Nauman's head is always partly off-screen and the frame is oriented diagonally, heightening the off-balance sensation of his endless falling. 

Elsewhere, he conceives of the flattened space of film and video as subject to the same rules of composition as painting. The background of "Wall-Floor Positions," 1968, cleaves the space into chromatic halves -- the white wall, the dark floor -- like a color field painting. Occupying the center of the frame, Nauman lies on the floor, cycling through a series of rigidly angular poses, using the limbs of his body in a kind of temporal drawing, so that the lines of his arms and legs interact with the forms behind him. 

As Stephanie Snyder, the exhibition's curator, points out in a companion essay, these films, while considered important precursors for performance and video art, have always been displayed in conjunction with Nauman's sculptures and photographs as if their chief value were documentary in nature. 

Given that he made nearly 30 studio films within such a condensed time frame, "Basements" convincingly argues for them as a singular, stand-alone body of work. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of the exhibition is the way the films' soundtracks commingle and overlap. 

There's the shimmering drone of "Violin Film #1," the time-keeping metronome of "Square Dance," the steady thrum of the artist's body colliding with the wall in "Bouncing in the Corner No. 1," and, every eight beats, a shrieking stab of violin from "Violin Tuned D.E.A.D.," 1969. 

The effect is a dissonant symphony, which, in the chance interplay of phased elements, calls to mind Minimalist composers of the day, such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. This dimension of the work extends the emphasis on composition -- readily apparent in the individual films -- to the collective body, displaying the crucial role of structure for Nauman, even when the activities captured in the films imply absurdity, chaos or even meditative, mental vacuity. 

In that sense, the films could be interpreted as a Cage-ian experiment, creating a musical score that excises its most "musical" aspects: Nauman addresses rhythm, volume and duration, but dispenses with melody and motifs. 

This strategy is entirely consistent with the artist's output of this period, manifesting an impulse to pare his work into basic, uncluttered expressions; thankfully, the focused scope of "Basements" makes it apparent.