Till They Listen
Bill Gunn Directs America
"I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country—for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism," Bill Gunn wrote in a fiery letter to The New York Times in 1973. His film, Ganja & Hess (1973)—which in 2016 was re-released in its original form to critical acclaim—had been panned by the newspaper's theater critic in a review sprinkled with factual errors, a clear sign that scant attention had been paid to the movie. "Bill Gunn Directs America,” on view now at Artists Space, re-examines the legacy of Gunn, a director, novelist, playwright, and actor, through artwork, ephemera, and film excerpts—all accompanied by an expansive roster of public programs. In doing so, the presentation sheds light on that which never saw the light of day in its own time.
The impressive range of items on display speaks to Gunn's polymathic abilities. Take, for instance, an undated watercolor painting that depicts a pair of paintbrushes bursting through a ream of paper next to a mythical creature, balancing on what looks to be a dripping grand piano. Elsewhere, a number of videos depict Gunn in the act of performing; others capture him in the midst of directing. A television in the space plays a compilation of outtakes and alternate scenes of Personal Problems: Scenes from a Wake (1980/2021), a never-aired show written by poet and novelist Ishmael Reed. The footage—which, improvisatory in nature, was shot with a 3/4" u-matic videotape and set into a dual-channel structure—creates an experience for the viewer akin to being a fly on the wall. While one camera roves around the room, another lingers on the facial expressions of the actors, offering insight to their characters' aggrieved interiority. Another moment caught on film captures Gunn as he instructs his actors between takes, revealing a unique approach to directing and collaboration—all in pursuit of an unceasing vision. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Still from Personal Problems: Scenes from a Wake, edited by Bret Wood, 2021, featuring outtakes from Bill Gunn's Personal Problems. Image courtesy Kino Lorber and Artists Space, New York.