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Ways to Be Wicked
John Hartman’s 14 Portraits of the Seven Deadly Sins
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
People have always been able to count on the Seven Deadly Sins to deliver an evening of quality entertainment.
Back in the 16th century, the Seven Deadlies were a prime subject for the traveling morality plays, and even into the early parts of the last century, depictions of the wickedness of men and the suffering that would ensue livened up many a carnival show. The ostensible purpose of those portrayals was to deliver a stern cautionary tale to the audience of what would happen if one succumbed to temptation in any of its forms; punishment would usually take the form of boils, madness, or eternal damnation.
You won’t find any stern moralizing in Fort Wayne artist John Hartman’s take on the Seven Deadly Sins. His video installation — 14 Portraits of the Seven Deadly Sins, which opens at the Kachmann Gallery on July 14 — strikes a different sort of tone, less booming “behold what evil men do unto one another” and more “isn’t it strange, the kinds of things people get up to?”
14 Portraits of the Seven Deadly Sins features 14 different short film segments of the Seven Deadly Sins adapted into a modern context, with two video portraits dedicated to each sin. None of the short films are over two minutes long. The Kachmann Gallery will be outfitted with 15 high-definition televisions. “There’s going to be one long, 14-minute video that we’ll have up in a couple places,” Hartman says. “On the other 14 monitors, there will be two monitors of each sin with a minute or two minute loop playing that will focus on each one of those sins.”
“There’s no dialogue,” he adds. “The visuals tell the story.”
Hartman, a professional videographer and film-maker (his day job is as a camera man for a local TV station), got the inspiration for 14 Portraits… from listening to All Nite Skate’s album Western Shame. The Fort Wayne-based band creates powerful instrumentals that are sometimes reminiscent of a film soundtrack, and Hartman, a huge fan of the group, found the sounds and the album’s title an evocative combination. “I just got completely obsessed with (the album) and just listened to it over and over,” Hartman says. “When that title came through, I kept thinking about this Western shame idea. It’s not so much politically driven, but we’re so bloated financially and physically in this country. You look at all these places that have so little compared to us, and I started thinking about how that relates to things like wrath or pride or gluttony.”
It sounds like pretty heavy subject matter, but part of what makes 14 Portraits of the Seven Deadly Sins such an interesting piece is that it avoids passing judgment and instead shows how many of these “sins” are actually an integral part of our everyday lives. At times, the tone is serious, while at others it’s humorous, reflective, or puzzled. “Overall, it’s just taking a look at ourselves and our culture,” says Hartman. “Some of them are really funny. Gluttony 1 is a couple guys at O’Sullivan’s drinking themselves silly. It’s mid-day drinking. But you think of the repercussion that each of these sins have behind them. You don’t know where these things take us and take our culture.”
The two portraits of Pride, the King of all the Seven Deadlies, take widely different attitudes towards their subject. Pride 2 is one of the most compelling segments in the film, and also one of Hartman’s favorites. A soldier (Shad Ingey) in full dress uniform stands in front of a giant American flag. The shots alternate between close ups of the soldier’s face and the flag, with video images of Vietnam and the current Iraq war playing across both surfaces.
Hartman says that with Pride 2 he was trying to address some of the confusion around our modern brand of American pride. What exactly are we being told to have pride in? American military might? The work, sacrifice, and dedication of our men and women in uniform? Or the principles the U.S. was founded on? “One of the things you always hear about is American pride and pride in our country,” Hartman says. “It was on every bumper sticker after September 11, but it’s the original sin basically. When I think about what we as Americans take pride in, (I wonder if this) is one of those things we should take pride in, is this a sin that benefits us? That’s the question I’m going to leave out there for other people to figure out because I’m still working on it myself.”
As a counterpoint to the political themes touched on in Pride 2, Pride 1 features “the prideful man” (played by Chris Colcord), preening in front of the mirror in anticipation of a night out on the town. The viewer follows his routine from when he steps out of the shower until he throws his jacket on and heads out the door. Underscoring this humorous peek at garden-variety vanity is the fact that we’re all guilty of this kind of pride to some extent. “That time you spend in front of the mirror and trying to primp and the cologne and the shaving… it’s such an intricate process,” Hartman laughs. “Think about the time you consume doing that.”
Wrath is another segment that examines the sins we see and commit everyday. Actors Jeff Moore and Regan Creigh portray a couple in a domestic dispute, and the film captures the moment when Creigh’s character snaps and loses her patience with her dim husband. “Seeing Regan turn into this very, very wrathful woman was really interesting,” Hartman says. “When you break down the sins, I think wrath is one of the ones we get accustomed to at an early age, the school yard fights that kind of build the people who become abusers and abusees. I think there’s a lot of that that goes on.”
14 Portraits of the Seven Deadly Sins doesn’t have any dialogue. For the 14-minute piece of music that makes up the soundtrack, Hartman went to one of the original sources of his inspiration: All Nite Skate. The band let Hartman sit in on their rehearsal sessions for the piece. “They practice in this tiny, tiny room lined with mattresses. Being able to sit in the middle of that and watching their creative process was just unbelievable. (The soundtrack) is a gorgeous piece of music.”
Hartman was the cinematographer and editor for John Commorato’s short films Prelude to A Bad Tattoo and Valentine, and he also wrote and directed his own short feature D.R.O.N.E. several years ago. He calls 14 Portraits of the Seven Deadly Sins “more of a straight-up art project,” but says he’d like to try to expand the possibilities of this kind of video/art exhibition. “So many times, when you think about video installation, it’s 800 screens stacked on top of each other and they all have snow on them or something painted on the screen, but it doesn’t have to be that,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be abstract. It can be beautiful images. It’s like a portrait, and I kind of treat the gallery installation like it’s the same thing.”
In other words, many people use television as sort of background noise or movement anyway, without actually actively watching what’s on the screen. Why not put some interesting images on there? “You’ve spent the money on a 42” frame, you might as well have this video art to put into it,” Hartman adds. “I think it’s a concept that’s time has finally come. I don’t know if I’ll be the one that breaks it, but it’ll be nice to at least start getting it out there so people can start thinking in those terms, to work on those as a different art form.”
14 Portraits of the 7 Deadly Sins
Video Art Show
Opening Reception July 14th, 8pm.
$5 cover, or $3 with TRF button
Live performance by All Nite Skate & cash bar.