Does Steve McQueen have some big thesis? A concept that runs through all his images, moving and otherwise? What, for instance, binds the British artist's two feature-length films, Hunger and Shame, whose respective protagonists are an imprisoned Irish nationalist and a Manhattan sex addict? Perhaps hunger? Or is it shame?
McQueen is certainly all over the map in the Art Institute's new survey show, "Steve McQueen"—not just thematically but geographically. His subject matter bounces from the UK, where he was born, to Granada, where his mother was born, to the United States, which seems to hold an increasing fascination for him. The first work you see is the hypnotic Static, a looped projection of the Statue of Liberty, shot from a circling helicopter. The sound fades in and out. You're left to wonder what "static" means here, because the video is anything but.
Beyond Static's double-sided projection screen is a dark gallery and a rare pleasure: the dim light encourages a sense of intimacy, both with the work and with other spectators.
That sense can cross over into claustrophobia, though, when you reach the unnerving video Girls, Tricky, which screens off the main room, down a narrow, padded hallway. It took my eyes some time to get adjusted, so I waited till I felt confident that I wouldn't step on anybody on my way in to watch trip-hop artist Tricky—the British child of Ghanaian and Jamaican parents—in a recording session for his song "Girls." Tricky is tightly framed by the lens, smoking something that could be a cigarette or a joint, and his intensity is both sexual and angry. "Never seen your dad, boy," he spits into the microphone. "I've never seen my dad, boy." Turns out that's true; dad left before Tricky was born. The film goes on for 15 minutes, and, even between takes, Tricky's bright burn doesn't dim. It's riveting.
The show offers a few departures from video form, including Mees, After Evening Dip, New Year's Day, 2002—a fuzzy, nostalgic light-box photograph—and the more recent Queen and Country. The latter was created by McQueen in his creepily decorous capacity as an "official British war artist" and consists of a wooden, casket-shaped box with sliding panels that contain 168 sheets of postage stamps bearing the likenesses of 168 British soldiers killed in Iraq. War is the theme of another work, too: Illuminer, a color film the artist made at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. McQueen is barely visible in it, illuminated only by the TV he's watching in a dark Parisian hotel room. A French-speaking announcer can be heard, reporting over sounds of gunfire.