R. Eric McMaster

American, born 1979

1080p digital video
05:12 min., color, silent
Courtesy of the artist

In R. Eric McMaster’s Pendulum (2014), the ponytail of a brunette athlete swings back and forth like clockwork. The woman is running, but only the back of her head is seen against a monochromatic background that periodically shifts through a rainbow of colors—yellow, green, blue, purple, red, and orange. Playing on a loop, the repetitive motion of the hair and continuous progression of the colors suggests the passage of time and the extraordinary endurance of an athlete who has trained tirelessly to achieve success in her sport. However, one never sees the fruits of her efforts. Her action is paradoxically in a state of stasis as the looped recording never culminates, and the payoff for her training is continually thwarted. Instead, we are left to observe what seems like an arbitrary aspect of her athletic performance.

Born in 1979 in Clarion, Pennsylvania, McMaster received a BFA from Pennsylvania State University (2003) and an MFA from Arizona State University (2008). He currently lives and works in Austin, where he teaches in the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin. In video, sculpture, photography, and performance, he has long deployed the play, rituals, and performance of sports to call attention to the way we non-athletes conduct and categorize life outside of the arena. Sports functions as a microcosm of society in his videos, producing situations for the players that are as wondrous, humorous, and confounding as they are relatable in their portrayals of power, vulnerability, obedience, and determination.

Pendulum is minimalist yet expansive in its associations with larger societal conditions like much of McMaster’s work. In his 2015 video A Change of Atmosphere, a male gymnast performs his pommel horse routine underwater where success depends on buoyancy, not balance. The Obstruction of Action by the Existence of Form (2012–13) presents two hockey teams playing a match while squeezed inside a twenty-foot-long rink. And the partners of a competitive ballroom dance couple perform their routine separately on two different screens in A Routine in Parts (2017). McMaster’s upending of normal conditions for the athletes’ execution of their skills produces mystifying results. He states, “When we experience the familiar disrupted, we often can’t clearly categorize the experience.” However, one can identify with the struggle of his subjects to overcome obstacles and strive for a win or perfection.

In the athletes’ faults and frustrations, we see their humanity and recognize the desire and determination to succeed. The rigorous training and preparation in athletics is geared toward one outcome—winning—and the videos convey how an athlete strives for perfect. They practice routines and drills hundreds, if not thousands of times to achieve an act without clumsiness, muscular fatigue, or a lapse in focus. Nonetheless, McMaster’s works suggest everyone cannot win every time, and “in the end, a perfect routine can never be. Perfection can never be.”

The videos beg the question: What does it mean to hinder the performances of highly trained, perfectionist athletes so that they do not succeed or are unable to achieve their desired results? In McMaster’s work, the goalposts shift (pun intended) and athletic activity takes on new meaning. The artist has recognized a “correlation between the influence of authority in sport and societal rules and norms.” His manipulations of conditions and subsequent irrelevance of rules in his videos therefore hint at possibilities of changing the social conventions to which we conform in everyday life. The awe and humor effected by the lack of control or constraints in the performances prompts viewers to imagine new ways of being in the world that refuse categorization, encourage new experiences, and permit fuller realizations of oneself, discovering aspects that have been denied, ignored, or overlooked, including the swing of a ponytail. –Kanitra Fletcher