Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits by Jeremy Blake
Jeremy Blake's (1971–2007) lush digital videos combine representational and abstract imagery to create visual narratives that are dreamy, historical, and richly psychological. Renowned for his shimmering, hallucinogenic “moving paintings,” which loop seamlessly without beginning or end, Blake was influenced as much by Hollywood culture as by the history of modernism. His coolly expressive digital and painted abstractions are slick, non-linear ruminations on topics as wide-ranging as reality television, vernacular architecture, mid-century Colorfield painting, the megamall, and the superchurch.
Blake’s cinematic video portraits are the final development in a career that consistently challenged distinctions between painting, photography, and computer and video art. In his last works, Blake turned to portraiture, plumbing the life, imagination, and aesthetic vision of three extraordinary artists. He honored his subjects’ achievements through an innovative new form that is its own contribution to the history of art.
Wild Choir features Blake’s two completed portraits: Reading Ossie Clark (2003), a study of “Swinging London’s” preeminent fashion designer of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as seen through the pages of his wild and colorful stream-of-consciousness diaries; and Sodium Fox (2005), a collaboration with David Berman, the poet and frontman of the rock band Silver Jews. The exhibition also included material related to Glitterbest, Blake’s last project, which remains unfinished. What was to be the third work in the series, Glitterbest is a portrait of and collaboration with Malcolm McLaren, the legendary and highly influential British fashion designer, boutique entrepreneur, punk rock band manager (Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, Bow Wow Wow, and Adam and the Ants), and cultural impresario.
Ossie Clark was the fashion designer for the glamour set of “Swinging London” in the era of British culture associated with the Beatles, James Bond, and the Mini-Cooper. With clients such as Marianne Faithful, Mick and Bianca Jagger, and Twiggy, Clark’s designs were icons, emblematic of a time of optimism, hedonism, and cultural revolution. Reading Ossie Clark was inspired by the posthumous publication (1998) of Clark’s diaries, which are full of disorienting non-sequiturs, unabashed name-dropping, and confounding color-coded illustrations that evoke the remarkable, intoxicated world in which he lived. The script for the video is a prose poem comprising fragments from the diaries and is read by Clarissa Dalrymple, the New York art world luminary. Many people may recognize Clark and his wife, the textile print designer Celia Birtwell, as the subject of one of David Hockney’s most reproduced paintings, Mr. and Mrs. Ossie Clark and Percy (1970-1971; Tate).
The poet and independent rock musician David Berman is the subject of Sodium Fox. A native Virginian who now lives in Nashville, Berman is a fascinating and complex figure, and the one portrait subject in the group who may be considered part of Blake’s generation. Reluctant rock star, Gen-X wiseguy, willfully isolated literary light, reformed drug addict, Southerner, Jew, patriot, and ex-guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Berman’s talent and influence among his contemporaries are equally matched by a desire to remain outside the public fray and the mass media’s voracious spotlight. With its prosaic, bathroom-wall style poetry, fluid streams of saturated color, and mysterious stripper-heroine, Sodium Fox is, as Blake described it, a “peep show for poets.”
Blake intended Glitterbest to explore the originality, flamboyance, and pioneering work of a cultural icon. Malcolm McLaren has been a major influence not only on musical production and fashion, but also on contemporary art. Widely acknowledged as a key force behind the creation of Punk Rock—the music, style, and attitude—in the 1970s, McLaren is famous for having cultivated one of the most notorious generation gaps of the postwar era. Since then, he has inspired younger generations through his continuing, groundbreaking work in music, performance, and writing. While Blake never completed the portrait, it is clear from the still images featured in the exhibition that Glitterbest would have been—as Sodium Fox and Reading Ossie Clark are—a dense and visually spectacular romp through the life and aesthetic vision of a creative force whose accomplishments are symbolic of an era.
Trained as a painter (Cal-Arts, M.F.A., 1995), Jeremy Blake was a bricoleur who employed a wide variety of media and an assortment of tools to make his art. Graphics and animation programs helped him to combine his own drawings and paintings with found materials, including photographs, 8mm and 16mm film, and mass- and printed media, to create richly layered digital C-prints (digital files printed photographically on chromogenic paper) and videos. Typically, the C-prints are not stills derived from the finished videos, but rather sources for the videos that he animated.
Blake’s enthusiasm for handmade images was central to his aesthetic and figured importantly in all aspects of his creative process. Using a computer, he rendered and animated each frame of his digital work. Despite the cool, dispassionate, and sleek appearance of its digital format, every aspect of his finished work bears the touch of his hand, albeit mediated by digital technology. This distinguishes his art from that of his contemporaries, such as Matthew Barney or Douglas Gordon, who also work in a cinematic format. Like these and other artists of his generation, Blake’s videos embrace subjects as broadly appealing as Hollywood films, popular music, and fashion. However, by rendering or manipulating each frame individually, Blake’s work is also linked to First Person Cinema, a tradition of experimental filmmaking that includes the work of artists such Man Ray, Harry Smith, and Stan Brackhage.
Jeremy Blake was born in 1971 and grew up living with his mother in Takoma Park, Maryland, a Washington, D.C. suburb; and with his father in the District neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. He took his first art classes at the Corcoran during his eighth-grade summer. He attended Takoma Elementary School, Piney Branch Middle School, Takoma Junior High School, Blair High School, and the Einstein Art Magnet School before matriculating at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned his B.F.A. in 1993. Today, he is internationally renowned, with his work collected by and shown in major museums throughout the world, including The Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. He produced the animated abstract sequences in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and contributed artwork and video for Beck’s album, Sea Change (2002). Blake took his own life on July 17, 2007, by drowning, off Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. The Associated Press confirmed his death on July 31, 2007.