Jeremy Blake - Century 21 (2004)
Sunday, April 27, 2008
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Jeremy Blake studied traditional painting in art school. "If you had asked me if I was interested in computers as a tool to make art, I would have said no," he says. But when Blake graduated from Cal Arts in 1995, he needed a job - and found a gig in New York as a digital photo retoucher. "I worked for a Corsican guy who berated me in French because I was so bad," Blake recalls. "After a few months he said, 'Jeremy, I'm very sorry because you are cool guy, but you have no future in computer!'" The job was a disaster, but the experience of manipulating images pixel by pixel lit a fuse. "The computer is the visual equivalent of an electric guitar," Blake says. "I was trained on an acoustic."
Ten years later, Blake has combined painting and computers to produce a techno take on traditional portraiture. His latest subject is Sarah Winchester, the eccentric heir to a firearm fortune. After her husband and infant daughter died in the 1880s, she concluded that the family was cursed, haunted by the spirits of those killed with Winchester rifles. On the advice of a medium, she built an enormous mansion in San Jose, California, to appease the ghosts. "I had read about it as a kid," Blake says. "I knew it was a house built around superstition - a fear of dead gunfighters - and it seemed to reflect contemporary events." Blake's 51-minute portrait of Winchester is contained on three DVDs, which will screen together in the US for the first time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art beginning February 19.
The first film, Winchester (2002), opens with the family mansion fading in and out of focus as the shadow of a gunman drifts across the screen. Odd elements are juxtaposed - cowboys from old ads morph into tracings of the house's art nouveau wallpaper. The second DVD, 1906 (2003), returns to the mansion after the great '06 earthquake. A maze of cracked plaster, winding corridors, and stairways to nowhere becomes a metaphor for Winchester's deteriorating mental state. Blake widens the view in the final chapter, Century 21 (2004), to explore the sickness - and the sexiness - of American violence. Each film runs in a continuous a loop - no titles, no credits. "Neurosis," Blake says, "is a broken record in your head." The cumulative effect is somewhere between a great expressionist painting and a bad acid trip.
Each frame of the trilogy is constructed in layers, like a conventional painting. Blake combines video, drawings, gouache, still photography, 8- and 16-mm film, and CG graphics. "For me," he says, "the computer is a way to get all your favorite mediums around the dinner table - and get them arguing." The technique places Blake among the new masters working with computers today who have moved beyond whizbang effects to celebrate pure aesthetics. "There are many people working with an individual medium," says Christiane Paul, a curator at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, where two of Blake's DVDs are in the permanent collection. "What distinguishes Jeremy is that he works in a variety of mediums in a very painterly way."
Blake has taken his craft beyond the gallery walls. He designed the cover for Beck's Sea Change album and produced abstract visuals for Paul Thomas Anderson's film Punch-Drunk Love. Trading art-world pretensions for the practicalities of the music and film studio were welcome changes: "I like artists who don't feel superior to the culture they critique."
The Winchester trilogy was inspired by my interest in the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. The Mansion is an architectural wonder that Sarah Winchester, widow of the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, constructed over the course of 38 years, beginning in the late 1800's. After suffering the premature death of her child and then her husband, Winchester, informed by her deep belief in Spiritualism, concluded that the angry spirits of those struck down by her family's guns had cursed her. An advisor agreed and suggested that she build an enormously large house--an endeavor that would both accommodate good spirits and ward off evil ones with the sounds of never ending construction. The result is an eccentric, sprawling 160-room mansion, well outfitted for the undead with staircases going nowhere, doorways leading out into open air several stories above ground, and miles of darkened hallways for the spirits to roam.
The Winchester films combine 8mm film footage, static 16mm shots of old photographs, hundreds of ink drawings, and intricate frame-by-frame digital retouching. They are meant to provide an abstract and emotional tour--not so much of the architecture, but of some of the more fearful chambers of Sarah Winchester’s mind. The abstract imagery represents supernatural activity, heightened by paranoiac glimpses of shadowy gunfighters, painterly gunshot wounds blossoming into Rorschach patterns, and a spectrum of images from Winchester rifle advertisements. The entire series is informed by the idea that the Victorian aesthetic (embodied by the Mansion's architecture) and the psychedelic sensibility (referenced through hallucinatory manipulation of the film) are sympathetic opposites.
My interest in the Mansion is rooted in an understanding that the site is more than just a monument to one person’s eccentric preoccupation—it is the tangible outcome from a collision of social and historical narratives. The series ties together several mythic strands fundamental to an American national identity in an attempt to justify Winchester’s architectural free-for-all. The figure of the gunfighter facilitates spiritual regeneration through violence, and lawmen and outlaws are thus treated with reverent trepidation—as are the ghosts of their victims.
Beneath the dreamlike flow of images, the structure of the films is very deliberate:
Winchester combines static 16mm historical photographs of the house, drawings, and laborious digital manipulation to convey a psychological portrait of the house. Accompanied by a moody soundtrack, the piece opens with a black-and-white shot of the architectural facade. Superimposed over the house, the silhouette of a gunfighter fills the frame, alluding to the Winchester legacy. As the film unfolds, both mansion and rifleman are eclipsed by veils of saturated color and kinetic abstractions. Painterly shapes resembling gunshot wounds morph into Rorschach–like inkblots and back again into rifle–bearing specters.
1906 takes much the same approach with synthesized film footage as well as images from my paintings and drawings, but it shifts its focus to the interior of the mansion and the parts of the house that suffered most in the earthquake of 1906. Sarah Winchester chose not to repair certain damaged sections, preferring to build around them, as she imagined that the house's resident spirits disapproved of these accommodations. To shoot live footage for this DVD, I used Kodak 8mm for its simultaneous painterly and touristy quality. The film begins and ends at the highest point of the house, creating a continuous sense of descent, and uses the sounds of construction mixed with period music.
Century 21 moves from the roof of the Winchester house to zoom in on a complex of three domed, space-age movie theaters situated across the street: Century 21, Century 22 and Century 23, alluding to the fact that it is film, TV and the media that perpetuate the icon of the gunfighter. The work consists of three short sections intended to represent what is “playing” in each of the theaters. These include richly layered montages of the Old West and pop-culture imagery, as well as art and film celebrities who appear as phantom stand-ins to embody the specters of the Cowboy and of Sarah Winchester herself.
The Winchester series distills and abstracts American myths of violence and spiritual reconciliation.
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