Full Circle

Todd Pavlisko's 'Crown' presents a historical art journey through time and space

click to enlarge Todd Pavlisko
Todd Pavlisko


hen Todd Pavlisko speaks about Crown, his solo exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, it is clear that this project is about the plasticity of time. The locally raised, New York-based artist’s forthcoming show centers on the installation of the titular “Crown,” a brass cube Pavlisko enlisted one of the world’s foremost sharpshooters to shoot, alongside “Docent,” an eight-channel video installation that documents the fired bullets travling through CAM’s Schmidlapp Gallery toward the cube.  

Although Pavlisko also has work in the Dutch Galleries of the museum — “All the Money I Found in a Year,” an installation featuring every coin he’s found on the ground for the past 10 years, gold-plated and catalogued — the two-part installation of “Docent” and “Crown” is crucial to Pavlisko’s artistic intentions to place his own visual work within the context of art history.  

When Pavlisko began the proposal for the Cincinnati Art Museum, he insists it was never about shooting inside the museum — a lot of jumping through bureaucratic hoops was required to allow the discharging of firearms inside a public space; City Council even had to sign-off.

Pavlisko’s intention for the project was continuing the artist’s long-held interest in employing the properties of science and physics to art. Pavlisko has made paintings and sculptures of physicists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking in the past, so a work of art that approaches time and space in an abstract way seems like a natural conclusion for the artist.  

Consistent with some of his recent work — like “Centerpiece,” which involved consulting with a plastic surgeon and observing cadavers for years before hammering a metal spike through his foot — Pavlisko likes to engage non-artists in a cross-disciplinary approach to art creation.  

For Crown, the artist cold-called his sharpshooter (who, because of the highly secretive work he performs, prefers to remain anonymous) and flew out to see him without ever knowing what the end product might look like. They worked together for years before ever shooting in the museum, and Pavlisko insists he’s “in no hurry” to finish a piece before it’s ready.

To Pavlisko, there are multiple layers of meaning when making art, and sometimes, he says, “you stumble into them” throughout the process. The art institution is a critical player in this recent work and the ways in which time is embedded within the institution (via the collection, the building’s architecture, etc.) are central to the installation’s success.  

Not only does the path that the bullets travel down connect the new and old entrances of the art institution, to Pavlisko’s mind, “Docent” in particular forces the art that lies between them in the recently renovated and reinstalled Schmidlapp Gallery to become spectators of his own work.  

Eighteen iconic pieces from the museum’s collection are housed within the Schmidlapp (the renovations and reinstallations of which were completed in October of last year) and they run the gamut from Warhol’s “Soup Can” (1962) to Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy” (1892) — works highly disparate in theme and time-frame, but placed within individual niches to encourage visitors to concentrate on each singular exemplary work of art.  

“The backdrop of the Schmidlapp Gallery is critical,” Pavlisko says, “obviously because we shot through here. But it also forces the art that’s on view to be seen as additional components of my art.”  

To accomplish this, the artist edited the video with the intention of demonstrating how objects can become spectators of action — bridging the chasm between purely technical and more artistic work. Docent walks the line between clinical documentation that “screams labwork,” according to Pavlisko, and an elegant record of time as a bullet moves gracefully across the screen.  

Pavlisko’s inspiration for the two newer pieces involved the work of inventor and MIT professor Dr. Harold Edgerton, who created the stroboscopic or electronic flash, which enabled artists to capture images in locations and under conditions that had never before been possible. Edgerton’s high-speed photographs revealed snapshots of time that the naked eye couldn’t otherwise see, and they demonstrated the inherent beauty of those moments.

But Pavlisko was also interested in one specific scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film, Band of Outsiders, in which three characters run through the Louvre in an attempt to break the world record.  

Artist Martin Creed and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci have also toyed with Godard’s idea of traversing the sacred space of the art museum at top speeds. But to Pavlisko, shooting the .30 caliber brass bullet at 2,700-feet-per-second, from the brass plated entrance of the Main Lobby into the brass cube in the Great Hall, accomplished much the same thing as Godard’s film — and did so quicker.  

Speaking metaphorically about the bullet’s path down the gallery housing the collection’s highlights, Pavlisko explains, “We are traversing thousands of years, depending on how you calculate it. The museum’s time is then smashing itself into modernism [via Crown’s brass cube], and we’re showing it in a contemporary capacity, so there’s this full journey of art history leading up to literally this interview.”  

The artist’s intentions then are to traverse time and space, employing a gun as an image-making tool. Although we only see the trace of the bullet’s path and its inscription upon the surface of the modernist cube, it is the implication of this millisecond-long action that will remain with the viewer. How that translates the experience of seeing the museum’s collection in the viewer’s mind remains to be seen, but Pavlisko shared a tidbit from the day they shot in the museum, which allowed the artist to see the work differently himself.  

After several hours of shooting in the space, Pavlisko says he noticed a transition in the shooter’s behavior — a person who he’d only seen approach his work with calm, scientific calculation. At one point, the sharpshooter asked him if they might want to strategically fire at the cube so the resulting bullet holes create a specific, recognizable image. “It was a thrilling moment,” Pavlisko says, “because now we’re talking about him becoming a maker; now we’ve come full circle.” 

CROWN opens at the

Cincinnati Art Museum March 15 and remains on display through June 15. For more info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org .