DAVID COHEN, Editor           
      February 2004  


 

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Notes on... Jeremy Blake, by Deven Golden

Jeremy Blake Reading Ossie Clark 2003
six stills from the DVD
Courtesy Feigen Contemporary

Can video become the new painting? Not just in the art scene, where video takes an ever larger slice of the exhibition pie, but in the aesthetic sense as well. "Autumn Almanac," a recent show by Jeremy Blake at Feigen in Chelsea has me wondering.

Blake included some small paintings, as well as one of the terrific large photo collages that first brought him to attention. But as with his last couple of exhibitions the signature piece was a knockout video projection in the main gallery. Filling one entire wall, "Reading Ossie Clark," 2003, is a nine minute loop of overlaid images obliquely referencing the life of 60/70s British fashion superstar Ossie Clark. It is Blake's most representational work to date, and one of his most ambitious.

Images of Clark and Twiggy-like models, along with other pop imagery from the time, blend, merge, bleed, and seep into one another, all tied together by a psychedelic mélange of high key colors. More poetry than prose, the narration by Clarissa Dalrymple (viewers can choose to watch with or without the voice over) is a rambling series of excerpts from Ossie Clark's diary, including references to the famous people that Clark mingled with and prodigious amounts of drugs consumed.

Blake's references and quotations from Clark's diary aside, "Reading Ossie Clark" is hardly just another episode of Biography. With its disembodied narration and jumbled images, one would be hard pressed to find literal meaning. But the texture of the times is indelibly etched; "Reading Ossie Clark" gives as full an impression in nine minutes of the milieu it covers as Ted Demme's 2001 film "Blow" does in 2 hours. It can do this because, in spite of its physical resemblance to film, structurally it more closely resembles painting.

Film is linear, a structural characteristic it shares with music, literature, dance, theatre, and poetry. That is, they all have this in common: a beginning, middle, and an end. Because "Reading Ossie Clark" is a video, there is a logical tendency to think of it as film, with all of the critical and historical criteria that would naturally accompany that assessment. But there are key elements that belie that analysis and suggest that the more proper criteria for comparison may be painting.

Painting offers a system where the content is circular, not linear, a structural characteristic it shares with sculpture, photography and drawing. You can enter a painting anywhere and exit wherever you wish. Paintings can be viewed for minutes, hours, days, or merely out of the corner of your eye as you move through a room. In short, it affords a non-judgmental compression or expansion of the participant's interaction time. Blake and a handful of other video artists would adopt painting's circular content over film's linear one.

When did video art begin to move away from film and toward a separate identity? As early as the mid-seventies, artists in universities began using computers to edit and manipulate video on computers - Dan Sandin's Image Processor, created in 1973 at the University of Illinois, was one of the early examples. (Feeling nostalgic? click here). Even as primitive as the first Sandin Image Processor was by current standards, it allowed artists a way to easily alter and edit live video in real time - without the delay, limitations, or costs of using film labs. Today any artist with a personal computer and a couple of hundred dollars worth of software has nearly professional grade video editing at their finger tips. Jeremy Blake was born in 1971, he grew up using computers.

Another component moving video into a category of its own appeared recently, with the advent of the DVD. "Reading Ossie Clark" makes use of key advantages unique to DVDs. For instance, Blake has made available alternate tracks - besides having the option to view with sound or without, you can choose to listen with the music soundtrack but without the Dalrymple narration. This is far different than offering two different cuts of the same film, as in the commercial release and the "director's cut". This is taking the same material and allowing, as one has come to expect in a more utilitarian way from commercial DVDs, the viewing experience to be personalized. And since it is a DVD, it can repeat, seamlessly and without end.


Yet, the thing that really moves Blake's piece away from film and towards painting is something that one might miss entirely (I almost did), because it's so small or, more specifically, not there at all: titles and credits. It's a simple thing perhaps, not uncommon among contemporary video artists, but one that is particularly effective in a trippy tone poem like "Reading Ossie Clark". For even if one attempts to follow the Dalrymple monotone incantation of sex, drugs, and parties, the chronological thrust is minimal at best. So it is quite inevitable to get lost looking for the beginning, middle, and end -reflecting so well the era it invokes, when there was no past, present, future, only the now.

Blake has referred to this kind of work as "moving paintings", and we are entering a period when a confluence of readily available consumer technologies will enable this vision to fully manifest. DVD players are everywhere. Plasma screen flat monitors, if not ubiquitous, are at least becoming common. Displaying Reading Ossie Clark as one would a painting in a home setting - over the couch, in the hallway, at the top of the stairs - is now within the realm of possibilities. Watching a video this way ceases to be a scheduled event. Instead, one has the opportunity, the luxury, of absorbing the artwork over time, in different moods, in a variety of circumstances, even in that odd moment out of the corner of your eye. You can enter the work at any point and leave at any point. In short, Blake's "Reading Ossie Clark" has little to do with the linear nature of film, and everything to do with the circular reading of painting.

 

Deven Golden, who is a contributing editor to artcritical.com, is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY

 

also by Deven Golden:

The Raw and the Cooked, Roland Flexner and Shirley Kaneda

Notes on...Karin Davie

Notes on...Ellen Birkenblit

Notes on...Mark Lombardi