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Is the art world ready for her mystery?

'Sixteen-millimeter film was part of my development as an artist. I love celluloid — the colors, the grain, the resolution, the contrasts,’’ says artist Rebecca Meyers. "Sixteen-millimeter film was part of my development as an artist. I love celluloid — the colors, the grain, the resolution, the contrasts,’’ says artist Rebecca Meyers. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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Like most things of interest, the short films of Rebecca Meyers leave you with more questions than you started out with. And though it may not be the first thing that springs to mind, one of those questions is whether art museums are likely to show more of her kind of work in the future.

Meyers, who is 35, was a finalist in the most recent James and Audrey Foster Prize at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which ended last week. She didn’t win. She was never going to. Her work — mature, self-sufficient, beautiful — had never before been shown in the context of an art gallery. Wonderful as it was, it looked as anomalous and mysteriously aloof as a cat in a kennel of eager-to-please dogs.

Of course, moving images, in the form of video art, are a common sight in museums of contemporary art. They have been since the 1970s. But the films of Meyers are different. They’re shot on 16mm film and screened by a projector. They’re simple, subtle, and intensely poetic. And unlike most videos shown in art museums, they do not sprout from the conceptual or minimalist traditions that have dominated art over the past four decades.

The miracle of Meyers’s Foster Prize nomination is that she got selected in the first place. A resident of Cambridge, she belongs more to the film world than the contemporary art world. She works part time as the director of film programs at Emerson College’s new ArtsEmerson Cinematheque in downtown Boston, and she is an associate director at Studio7Arts, a small Cambridge-based organization, headed by the acclaimed documentary maker Robert Gardner, which sponsors film and other creative projects.

To see Meyers’s work in the Foster Prize exhibition, one entered a small, dark room and watched one of three films, each of which showed for a period of weeks. Each lasted between four and seven minutes. The imagery had not been converted to video or digital, which meant that entering the room one heard the evocative whir of a projector. There were no words. There was no narrative. Nothing really happened.

The imagery was quiet, suggestive, associative. In the film “night side,’’ for instance, one saw ice formations up close; a suburban house through bare, swaying branches in the evening; a squirrel on a wire, its tail fluffed up and irradiated by light; a mysteriously morphing pinprick of light against enfolding darkness.

Another of the films, “things we want to see,’’ included footage of light glinting off waves, turbulent waterfalls, a dog circling in snow, two butterflies, cresting whales, melting ice shelves. Much of this footage played, inexplicably, against an old recording of voices at a 1955 New Year’s Eve party.

I say “inexplicably,’’ but one of the reasons Meyers’s films stood out at the ICA is that they seemed to exist independently of the need for explanation or interpretation. In recent times, this need — in the form of wall texts, artist statements, prolix curators, and puffed-up critics — has become endemic in the art world, to the point where many people no longer feel comfortable forming a relationship with a work unless it has first been parsed by a so-called expert.

In front of Meyers’s films, words of any kind feel like an intrusion. Her films have an intuitive logic and an aesthetic coherence that catches you off guard, filling the heart and shutting the mouth.

Now that the Foster Prize is over, Meyers admits to certain qualms about her foray into the contemporary art world. She enjoyed the attention her work received. But she had misgivings about its display. In art museums, videos are conventionally presented in rooms that encourage audiences to drop in and out at will. Meyers is more used to the controlled and hushed atmosphere of cinemas — and she clearly prefers it.

The inherent fragility of her medium poses even greater problems. Celluloid is easily damaged. Playing it on a loop for weeks at a time seriously affects the quality of the imagery.

Why, then, does Meyers insist on working with 16mm film? Couldn’t she just as easily switch to digital?

Sitting by the window in a bakery café in Cambridge, Meyers answers the question with an odd combination of passion and reluctance, as if conscious of fighting a futile rear-guard action.

“Sixteen-millimeter film was part of my development as an artist,’’ she says. “I started capturing images with it. I love celluloid — the colors, the grain, the resolution, the contrasts.

“It’s related to that whole analog-digital debate, isn’t it?’’ she continues. People who evangelize about the ability of the latest digital technologies to reproduce accurately the look of the world are missing the point, she believes.

“I’m not trying to reproduce the world. Film transforms the world. It’s light, it’s chemicals. It’s magical.’’ She pauses. “It’s romantic.’’ Another pause. “Video is pixels and electronics.’’

Meyers has dark, sympathetic eyes and longish, tightly curled black hair. She was born in New York City, grew up in Westchester County, and has studied, taught, and worked in Ithaca, Iowa, Chicago, and Cambridge. In person, she has an unhurried, almost languid air, and conveys the impression that, while art is extremely important to her, other things are, too.

The day before we spoke, Meyers arranged for me to see her latest film, “blue mantle,’’ in the ArtsEmerson Cinematheque. It took the man in the projector room at the back of the theater a few minutes to sort out some technical glitches, but eventually the lights were dimmed, the screen lit up, and the countdown began.

At 34 minutes, “blue mantle,’’ which takes its title from a phrase in John Keats’s poem “Epistle to My Brother George,’’ is Meyers’s longest film to date. It was filmed over five years on Cape Cod, Cape Ann, and around the South Shore.

So far, it has been selected to show in four film festivals, including in the avant-garde sections of the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. And it was named one of the top 10 films of 2010 in an Artforum poll.

“I started with this simple but infinite idea of the ocean,’’ explains Meyers. “I’ve always loved the sea, and the natural world, and when I came to Massachusetts, I was really taken by these seaside towns.’’

When Meyers visited the Hull Lifesaving Museum on the South Shore, she says, “I just got this feeling of being really moved by these men who would risk their lives. They were just waiting for a shipwreck.’’

She had read a book — about the Romantic vision of the ocean in the 19th century — which had a section on the “physiognomy of waves.’’ So she started filming waves — either from up close or from great distances.

“Distance is a really important part of the film,’’ she insists. “I was always standing on the shore. People ask, why didn’t I go out on a boat? But the film is about being on the shore. It’s about that distance.’’

The footage of waves — at night, in sunlight, veiled in curtains of atmosphere — is interspersed with the text of 19th-century poems or prose passages about the sea, and with close-ups of paintings and prints that depict the sea. The idea to film works of art came from a visit to the Cape Ann Historical Museum, where Meyers discovered the paintings of Fitz Henry Lane.

But here again, contradicting the drama of the subject matter in the works of art is a sense of the distance that separates us from such events. We’re made acutely aware that we’re looking at representations of representations. (Many of the images she filmed off her computer screen.)

Other parts of “blue mantle’’ allude to stirring feats of technological achievement, such as the laying down of thousands of miles of submarine telegraph cable connecting the town of Duxbury with the French city of Brest in 1869, and Guglielmo Marconi’s first wireless transmissions from a station on Cape Cod.

Shifting back and forth between these mediated images loaded with historical import and the more immanent, mesmerizing footage of glossily undulant water or rhythmically breaking waves, the film powerfully registers what is unknowable, unsayable, unrecoverable. Like Meyers’s other films, it evokes the tenuousness, the transience, and the beauty not just of the sea, but of life itself.

Meyers has no idea if the art world will prove receptive to what she does in the long term. Immersed in her day jobs, she seems more focused for now on the world of film. She admits to finding it strange that, while “filmmakers who make these sorts of [experimental] films tend to go to museums to see paintings,’’ artists don’t seem to reciprocate by seeking out experimental cinema.

The opportunities are admittedly rare. And unfortunately, as she puts it, “film is movies to most people.’’

But her own films are a reminder that, freed from conventions of storytelling, cinema can add a powerful dimension to the beauty of images as they have been celebrated throughout art history: It can add movement, duration.

Like all the other finalists in the ICA’s Foster Prize, Meyers was obliged to provide an artist’s statement. In it, she said: “All of my films are about close and careful looking at details we often don’t see as we look toward larger things.’’

From Van Eyck and Vermeer through to Marcel Duchamp, Gabriel Orozco, Tara Donovan, Richard Tuttle, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Olafur Eliasson, this impulse to look with fresh eyes upon the generally overlooked has been a central theme in the history of art, right up to the present. The fact that Meyers happens to use celluloid film instead of found objects, still photography, or plastic cups should not preclude her work from being noticed in the art world.

As she said to me, “Our lives could do with a bit more mystery.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.