The Nature of the Beast
Robert Banks at Brandt Gallery
Robert Banks’ brief, intense films are composed frame-by-frame – like pictures at an
exhibition. But usually they hang only on the shadowy walls of Time, as they jerk and
flicker past in darkened theaters. Cleveland’s premier low-budget independent film maker
has been known since the early 1980’s as a weaver of vividly expressionistic sight-bites.
Films like You Can’t Get a Piece of My Mind, X -- The Baby Cinema, Motion Picture
Genocide, and Outlet have earned Banks some twenty awards, showing at the Sundance
Film Festival, the Rotterdam Film Festival, and the Ohio Independent Film Festival among
others. His awards include the Midwest Filmmakers Conference's Filmmaker of the Year
Award, and a career retrospective at the BBC Short Film Festival in London.
Less noted have been the thousands of large and small format photographs he’s taken
over the decades, so his current solo show Nature of the Beast at Tremont’s Brandt
Gallery is a rare treat. In the eleven black and white photos on view the frantic staccato of
Banks’ jam-packed moving pics is absent, replaced by a leisurely glance at the formal
elegance and improbable visual balance characteristic of this artist’s film noir and
structuralist influences. Gone, too, from these recent 35mm studies, are those expressive
flourishes for which he is known, the scratching and spattering of paint and bleach, all the
damage and visual “noise.” These are quiet, essentially slow takes on their subjects.
Banks employs just two women models in most of the photos on display, and he controls
every bit of information about them. Everything is directed, as in a movie: The lighting, the
wardrobe, even the expressions on their faces. We see them in a room, furnished the way
a room in a painting might be furnished; there’s a chair or two to support and bend the
figures around spare vertical lines, and sometimes a chest of drawers in the background
to tie the composition together. One is quite young; the other is older -- old enough to be
A third model appears in the last two pictures. With her shaved head and an unnatural
sheen to her skin, it’s hard to tell whether this young woman is real, or might possibly be a
mannequin. All the other photos are untitled, but these are called Madness of Science 1
and 2. Structurally, as elements at the end of a sequence, these facts begin to inform and
define the other images. How real are the women in those carefully staged tableaux?
There’s a weird element of distortion or dislocation that becomes noticeable only later,
after you’ve looked at them all and started over again. For instance, there’s the
straightforward-seeming shot of the younger of the two women, seated in an armchair.
She’s facing the camera, with a hint of defiance or impatience. But now it seems that her
left hand, resting on the arm of the chair, is impossibly distant from her body. It looks
abandoned and somehow empty.
In another, the same model seems almost like a woman who’s been sawed in half. But as
always with this photographer, the sleight of hand is sly, like the inadvertent-seeming
jostling of a pickpocket. Her pretty face with its exaggerated makeup is jammed up against
the left margin of the photo, taking up much of the frame. Beyond her we see her knees,
resting on a chair. The more you look at it, the more it looks wrong. How did her legs get
over there? Why are they so small? They could just as easily belong to someone else,
one realizes, or to no one; maybe they’re artificial.
The magic of Banks’ imagery here is in the way he magnifies distances between persons,
and between body and soul. Nature of the Beast maps out its own visual/psychological
terrain and leaves us wanting to see more of Banks unexhibited still camera work.
[Plain Dealer 8/6/05]