Jennifer West, Electric Kool-Aid and the Mezcal Worm, Vilma Gold, 7 September - 5 October 2008.
It must be frustrating for Jennifer West that everyone always says this, but it's hard to see her films and not think of the history of treated film - of Ken Lye or Stan Brakhage painting directly onto the film strip. That's because the films look so similar and yet this doesn't feel like the kind of work overly bothered with quoting such historical precedents.
It's odd, too, because, as the titles of her films reveal, West is using very different materials - including LSD, liquid viagra, and strawberry jam to make the brightly coloured patterns that fill the screens. I guess there's much to be said about the cultural differences, artistic assumptions, and working methods that lead an artist to choose particular materials, but it's also remarkable how similar a film you get with liquid viagra than you do painting Brakhage-style onto the film strip. Or maybe it's not.
All of which puts an emphasis less on the colored patterns themselves than on the way such films are presented. West avoids the home made feel that super 8 or even 16mm would have - this would be too close to her historical precedents. She uses 35mm and 70mm, projected large on the wall, two films in each of Vilma Gold's interconnected warehouse spaces.
The size is necessary, capturing the elevation of a certain silliness and goofiness into moments of cultural zeitgeist. In her new 35mm Electric Kool-Aid Fountain Swimming Film, there's a clearer sense of how these films capture certain lifestyles, generations, and ways of behaving. The colored patterns flicker and swirl over images of West and her friends bathing at night in Los Angeles swimming pools. In Seriously Film that attitude comes in the films repeated writings - in viagra, visine and fake tanning lotion - of the word "seriously." In the other films here it's left to the play of colors themselves, and the knowledge - from the descriptive titles - of what materials were used to make them.
Jennifer West, Green M&M's & Mexcal Worm Film (70MM film leader with a mezcal worm dragged over the surface - imprinted with hundreds of green M&M's), 2008, 1:18. Courtesy of the artist, Marc Foxx, Los Angeles and Vilma Gold, London.
Indeed, watching West's patterns of color made me wonder what flows of colours like these are capturing or prompting. The recent Len Lye presentation at BFI Southbank highlighted the way such flows were products of that artists deeply held views concerning mythological and biological notions of creation and evolution. Stan Brakhage, reflecting on his own process of painting on film, writes of how it involves "the paradigmatic play of memory." (Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker, 80) He describes his own process when painting onto the filmstrip the lettuce on the table in front of him:
Were I to paint the plein-air abstraction of this (as I do) onto a strip of film, my whim would be to absorb what could be seen of such lettuce, its surrounds of tables and all, the very room, and then to allow into my consideration the movements of such absorption - the shifts of eye in contemplation, the electric discharges of synaptic thought, the "translations," as it were, from optic imprint to memorabilis.(78)
This is hugely different from what West is up to. West's patterns make no claim to a kind of synaptic immediacy, or, rather, it offers the immediacy of a mind defined by a crazed post-pop-and-punk consciousness, endlessly expressing itself through - and being manipulated by - the substances to hand, more everyday curiosity and involvement than primal perceptual experience.
That's why I like the new film so much, where West and friends lark around amid the patterns and flows of color: it captures just this sense of the patterns as interior and exterior, description and occurrence, of the body these substances were intended for and the film that absorbed them instead of or as well. Certain reviewers have found this all a bit knowing and tiresome, but I liked how that knowingness combined with the casual and everyday, without ever letting in the complacency of either.
Jennifer West, Seriously Film (70MM Film Leader soaked in MSG and boiling water - inscribed and stamped with the word seriously - with Viagra, Visine and fake taning lotion), 2008, 1:01. Courtesy of the artist, Marc Foxx, Los Angeles and Vilma Gold, London.
West herself has described all this - in an interview with Greg Kurcewicz available here - as an anarchic, gender conscious alchemy:
When I apply any crazy materials to film emulsion - I have learned how the emulsion will react to something acidic versus something sweet - or over time something that will rot eventually. But I still get a huge satisfaction to see what exactly happens to the film when I apply say, mosquito repellant - which I recently did to a film called the Campfire Smell Film. The mosquito repellant made tiny magenta and purple dots all over the film. I didn't really know if it would do anything. The results were fantastic.
Alchemy is historically linked to men - and I find it funny and perhaps rather perverse to do things that a young boy would find delight in - like covering film in gunpowder and lighting it on fire or running over it with a motorcycle. I like to mix the gender thing up though - something akin to riding a skateboard wearing a dress...
Occamy is the silver version of alchemy - I like how this relates to film, considering film emulsion was once made with silver nitrates - hence that's where the "silver screen" comes from. So film is inherently alchemical - as its made of layers of emulsion that are exposed to light or in my case, anything I want - that then produces "gold" in the form of mesmerizing, colorful images.
Urine produced some of the most beautiful images I've ever made. I processed some film in my bathtub recently in the light and was mesmerized as it slowly transformed from opaque to transparent.