The Projectionist

On view through Oct. 12


Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Simons Center for the Arts

54 St. Philip St.(843) 953-5680

Before I became a wide-eyed American immigrant, I got my USA 101 the same way as most people around the world — from Hollywood movies, sitcoms, superhero comics, and Uncle Sam’s military policy. When I moved from England I knew that there were certain things I needed to fit in: credit card debt, a garage full of junk, a hunting license, and a den or basement to retreat to in my dotage.

Wracking up the debt was easy. So was amassing the junk, and I’ve been invited to go night fishing with a lady called Big Marge. So far, the basement has eluded me. A basement is a place to go when the rat race gets too fierce, when family life seems too mundane. It’s a space for all that extra junk that won’t fit in the garage, and an oasis of calm in which to clear one’s thoughts.

For Gordon Brinckle, it’s all those things and a movie theatre too. The Projectionist delves into his life and the contents of his cellar.

For past exhibitions, The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art has been transformed into a juke joint, a Chinese laundry, and a weird organic-looking structure where the outside of the building oozed in. Its current exhibition is something more dazzling and unusual, based around a photographic project by Kendall Messick. The subject is Brinckle (pronounced Brinkley), Messick’s old neighbor in Delaware. As a boy, the artist remembers visiting Brinckle’s house and seeing a movie theatre in the basement. When Messick came home years later and found that his neighbor had continued to tweak, improve, and utilize the theatre, he started to photograph the elderly man.

Messick shot black-and-white photographs upstairs in the “real world,” capturing the sedentary life of Brinckle and his wife, Dot. The downstairs images explode into color, showing the rich red and blue interior of The Shalimar Theatre. There’s a box office, marble figurines, animal statuettes, and trimmings taken from the designer’s dream version of a larger-than-life ’30s movie theatre.

To tell Brinckle’s complete story, Messick shot a documentary video that covers his life and work, from a boyhood fascination with projectors to a fulfillment of his vision. After the biopic was done, Messick decided to take half of the theatre out of the basement and on tour. Halsey is its second stop. Now you can see the theatre and watch the doc in the reconstructed proscenium.

While that’s a great way to start the show, the real treasures are on the second floor of the gallery. Some of Brinckle’s relics, programs, handmade stamps, and projection equipment are displayed in glass cases. The photographs on the walls contrast shots of the Shalimar’s colorful showman with candid glimpses of elderly life. They capture the effort it takes to wash, get dressed, and walk from one room to another. This is the heart of The Projectionist — the hardship and neglect of our elderly citizens. How many of them have been forgotten or underappreciated, Messick asks, and how many have fantasy worlds tucked in some corner of the house?

It’s when we enter that fantasy world that the photos really mesmerize. They’re beautifully lit, three-dimensional, and full of life. Ironically, the only thing that lets the exhibition down is the projection of the documentary — the colors bleed, the image wobbles occasionally, and Messick’s gorgeous source film loses some of its luster. Messick says that this can’t be rectified without spending thousands of dollars on digital equipment and an operator, impossible in a show that he believes is already stretching the gallery’s budget.

The so-so projection is a minor grumble when faced with such all-round splendor, and the photography succeeds in telling the real story of Brinckle’s amazing 92-year life.

Messick would like to take the show to England. While it would have to work hard to compete with all the other U.S. cultural exports, this one would give a much clearer picture of Americans’ ingenuity, humor, and indefatigable resolve to follow their passions.