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Filming on empty

Road-tripping artist likes it best when there's no there there
by: JIM CLARK, Filmmaker Matt McCormick takes his dog Tess for a walk in the North Portland industrial area where he lives. Tess accompanies him on his film shoots; the jingle of her tags can sometimes be heard on the soundtracks.

Matt McCormick has long been fascinated by abandoned buildings and ghost towns.

In 2005 he was on one of his periodic drives from Portland to Santa Fe, N.M., when he challenged himself to find the town called Santa Claus in Arizona.

'I had these fantastic home movies my grandfather shot in the 1950s with my dad and his younger brother just hanging out, checking it out,' he says in a recent interview in his studio on the Willamette River.

To his surprise he found Santa Claus, abandoned and peeling but not yet bulldozed. He filmed the town, then intercut it with his grandfather's footage and mailed a DVD of it to his dad in Maine as a Father's Day present.

'He got really into it,' McCormick says with a modest smile.

The idea had been brewing for a while. In 2003 he shot a promo video in Eastern Oregon for a song by the Shins called 'The Past and Pending' that captured the emptiness and sheer age of that area. He's kept a mental note of old pioneer homes ever since.

Gallery owner Elizabeth Leach had been asking McCormick for two years if he wanted to do something, and a year ago the penny dropped, albeit in slow motion. Rather than make something as didactic as a documentary about abandoned development, McCormick would do something more open-ended. Something more like art.

In addition to several drives around Oregon, McCormick took his father on a three-week, 5,000-mile road trip through the West, shooting in the morning and evening and fly-fishing during the day.

'Ghost towns don't look like Hollywood ghost towns,' McCormick says - there are trash and old trailers, and sometimes they're just big dumps.

He visited the Salton Sea in California: 'It was a man-made lake resort in the 1950s. Now its just a big stinky puddle of gross, polluted water.'

Many hours of editing later, the result is three approximately-18-minute film loops that will be projected on the walls of Leach's gallery in March. They consist of 20-second bursts of footage of peeling motel signs, rickety wooden houses, disused gas stations and boarded-up buildings.

Previewing the shots on his computer, McCormick says the stone buildings of Rhyolite, Nev., remind him of ancient ruins, while he declares of one wooden shack just south of The Dalles, 'This one's ready to move into!'

Aside from the grass waving or a bird flying by, you'd think they were stills.

'There are definitely some weirdos out there,' he says of the locals in some of the towns he passed through. 'You get too far out and you're the first visitor for a long time.'

Getting his shot usually involved a kind of victimless trespassing. For instance, he was driving along with a friend on a highway near Fossil, Ore., looking at a storm and when they spotted a speck in the distance. It turned out to be an abandoned shack.

McCormick hopped the barbed wire and set off with his metal tripod though the electrical storm to capture the bleached wood and dark spaces of the structure. As a bonus, forked lightning showed up in the background.

Chairman of the boarded

McCormick used a hand-cranked Bolex 16 mm camera that shoots 20 seconds at a time. He also made field recordings using his mini DV camcorder, and took stills with a digital point-and-shoot camera that are for sale in the gallery.

Walking into an abandoned building gives him a buzz.

'You can enter it and lay some sort of claim to it, and feel a connection to it in a way you don't get in a refurbished building, which becomes like a museum. A little part of you can say, 'I could move into that corner there and set up shop, put my sleeping bag here … .' '

McCormick used to take out-of-town friends to see the boarded-up Simon Benson House in downtown Portland, and once even sneaked into the spooky house next door, but he hasn't been back since it was restored.

In his films, such as 'The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal' and 'Towlines,' he wants the viewer to see things in a different way. He uses long takes to hold the gaze, a technique that's almost unheard of in contemporary editing, although he points out that it's commonly used by filmmakers Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant.

'It allows your eyes to move around the image - in fact, I'm forcing (people) to spend more time with it.'

He hopes this arouses the viewer's curiosity, making them look longer at one thing.

Viewers come, viewers go

The loop format was also a departure.

'Because it's a giant circle with no beginning or end, it depends when someone walks in,' McCormick says, 'and that makes the juxtapositions really change their meaning. This might be just the right venue for this idea.'

Leach points out that her ex-husband was a filmmaker, and she likes to show video installation work. She encouraged McCormick to show, giving him a bathroom to work on at the 2006 Affair at the Jupiter art fair. He lined the shower with silver Mylar and installed a video of the sun setting.

'I was playing with idea of synthetic meditation and using technology to re-create brain states we find in nature settings,' he says of 'Ride the Wave to Tomorrow's Sunset,' which will be reprised in the gallery.

People interacted, all right. 'It became the hangout room.'

Gallery representation is nice, as long as he gets to keep making his own experimental films. McCormick remains solidly independent - instead of attending his First Thursday opening, he'll be in Russia at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.

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'Future So Bright'

When: First Thursday reception 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 1; regular hours 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, through March 31

Where: Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 N.W. Ninth Ave., 503-224-0521, www.elizabethleach.com

'Future So Bright' with guitar and Casio soundtrack performed by Matt McCormick

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 7

Where: Holocene, 1001 S.E. Morrison St., 503-239-7639

Cost: $5