The Blue Raccoon

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Day Late and A Dollar Short Part V:
Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits by Jeremy Blake

From Jeremy Blake's Sodium Fox (2005), showing some of its cast of recurring images; a chaise lounge lolling stripper; Abraham Lincoln; a Pabst Blue Ribbon-dousing skeleton; a floating eyeball, Star Wars fighters blasting Los Angeles hillside houses, and an owl, among others, via Kinz, Tillou + Feigen.

"It feels like channel-surfing through your dreams." -- Chris Richards, The Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2007.

Washington Post slide show of Blake's life and work.

From critic Deven Golden, December 2004, emphasis mine:

"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."

Moving paintings in the dark...

Three bright and active screens, two rigged for ear phones and the other with the sound going. In other situations, tromping through the great halls of the world's museums and contemporary galleries, exhibits like this most often afford me a place to sit and ease my throbbing feet from unforgiving concrete floors.

This is different.

"Blake’s cinematic video portraits are the final development in a career that consistently challenged distinctions between painting, photography, and computer and video art," states the Corcoran's description. And that much is true. One could, as I did, sit and watch them straight through or, as I pointed out in the previous section, graze and on occasion dip into their experience while conducting a conversation.


Still from Jeremy Blake's uncompleted Glitterbest. That 's Sid Vicious
at right "mean mugging in a Naval uniform." Via Kunstschau.

I started with Glitterbest, the "work-in-progress" that the Corcoran was careful to point out wasn't anywhere near finished and that some of the images were retrieved per instruction from Blake's computer. The portions in their varying stages "demonstrate how Blake constructed his 'moving paintings' layer upon layer, frame by frame..."

I come to these pieces with my linear-cinema biases; I don't mind how crazy films get, long as they try to resolve the weirdness according to the laws of the film's own universe. Blake's work isn't cinema, but video on a loop, and I must meet the work half-way on terms with which I'm unfamiliar. Like literature, or good music, these pieces hold meanings, repeated imagery and sounds that could reward repeated viewings. Sitting in a museum setting, though, they can also blur into one amorphous cloud of color and light and sound.

Punk impresario Malcolm McLaren recites a stream-of-conscious history of his glory days in an engaging Cockney voice. I enjoyed seeing the punks posed in martial array as though setting out to conquer culture; a sagging phallic Maltese-cross marked dirigible with its roustabout crew transforming either into a lipstick or an animal's penis; masted ships at furious surreal battle, undulating colors and patterns. The work was assembled by David Sigal.

My note-taking was limited, in the dark, trying to watch the images at the same time, thus McLaren's pithy and absurd statements are, at moments, rendered even less sensible. Sorry.

At, one supposes, the beginning: "Once upon a time, in world increasingly bereft of ideas....[the punks] set off in a rented [illegible] epoch a [punker?] this is a "X" on a map...Blitzkrieg...Atom Ant...unruly hair...William Blake and Jack the Ripper rolled over Beethoven...Lord Nelson discovered that America was a cracked pattern in a linoleum Times Square floor...I ain't your father, Punk, but I produced you...Beau Brummel with a boombox...The unmoved mover as opposed to the unmoved manager...History is for pissing on...Peyote Pete on a platypus."

Well, this is an example of 'You had to bet there.'

It isn't a piece of cultural history with which I have great familiarity. But Blake was a student of the period, enjoyed the music and so he sought to create a view into the time and place with what one writer termed a "nostalgic" sensibility.

Malcolm McLaren (left), Jeremy Blake (gesturing, right) from
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, post on The Wit of the Staircase.

On September 9, 2007, The Independent of London ran Charles Darwent's piece about the late Blake and Duncan, and caught up to McLaren, who had some rather curious comments, and he was there to watch the couple interact. The piece dropped some tantalizing first-hand observation into a spinning-into-butter situation, while presenting a posthumous he said-she said-he said.

"Sitting in his Manhattan office, Malcolm McLaren winces and says, "I'm only talking to you about this because I don't understand what happened." Then the man who invented punk goes uncustomarily quiet.

Actually, the silence is a relief. For an hour, McLaren has talked unstoppably about Blake and Duncan's double suicide, his voice rising in exasperation. "I met Theresa first, in the late 1990s," he says. " She was just about to venture off to Hollywood and her agent wanted me to meet her. I knew nothing about her, but I found her vivacious, full of herself. Incredibly self-confident, but also innocent about the world she was getting herself into. There was a touch of hysteria to her. If you were ever even faintly critical, she would explode. So I didn't go there."

At the time, Duncan had just finished making The History of Glamour with Kilimnik. "The title told you everything you needed to know about Theresa and Jeremy," McLaren says. "Glamour was what they were about, and Hollywood was where they were going to find it. She had an idea for a movie, a fashion-driven, coming-of-age story called Alice Underground. The unexpected thing about Theresa, though, was her mind. For all her youth-culture thing, when she spoke she had real curiosity. She was intellectually driven."

By contrast, according to McLaren, Blake was much the less confident of the two. "I liked him a lot," McLaren says, "but he always struck me as a troubled person. Everything that's been written about them since it happened has suggested that Theresa was the crazy one. But actually I don't think she was all that crazy. I think it was the other way around."

...Malcolm McLaren has a different take on the story. "It was Jeremy who was the real troubled soul in that relationship," he says. "He was much darker than Theresa. His father died of Aids, he didn't see much of his mother. And he was screwed up by not knowing where he came from culturally. His mother was Jewish, but he had his father's really Waspy surname, Blake. I think that's partly why he took to me, that I'm a Jew called McLaren. He was a damaged person, and he relied on Theresa utterly."

The golden-couple image was flawed in other ways, too.' "If we're being honest," says McLaren, "Jeremy was gay. I don't think his relationship with Theresa was all that sexual. She was a mother to him. When I saw them in Hollywood, he was always terribly concerned that people would think he was a fag – he walked around with this hip flask of whisky in his pocket and he was constantly swigging from it, like some kind of cowboy."

Blake was also obsessed by the rock culture of his parents' generation, another thing that drew him to McLaren. At the time of his death, he was working on Glitterbest, a cinematic portrait of the Sex Pistols' Svengali, due to be shown at Washington's Corcoran Gallery this October. A taste for the early 1970s meant a taste for things British: Blake had already done a DVD portrait of the fashion designer Ossie Clark, composed of abstract images taken from Clark's floral prints. Interviewed by the supercool art magazine, Tokion, about the work's pink-and-blue prettiness, Blake was emphatic that his admiration for Clark was strictly artistic. "This guy was a gay jet-setter," he said. "I'm a straight guy from the suburbs of DC."

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