Film noir on acid best describes Jeremy Blake’s Sodium Fox, a dense, dazzling moving-image portrait jumbling the moody angst of urban predawn wanderings with the sunny exuberance of beach-side afternoons. Our troubled hero, Silver Jews band member David Berman, speaks in cryptic voice-over fragments, and his object of desire, dressed in little more than pink fishnets, is less femme fatale than ephemeral muse. There’s internal struggle, a search for answers and maybe an epiphany, and when the final image — of a rainbow over the darkened ocean — emerges, a portrait of Berman has emerged too. That said, if you’re looking for lurid rock-star details, or even just the facts, you’d better look elsewhere. Blake couldn’t care less about the ethics of documentary filmmaking or the desire to render Berman’s life with any kind of clarity. Instead, his portrait immerses you in a collective pool of pop iconography punctuated by enigmatic and often hilarious soundbites. It’s up to you to figure out the puzzle.
For almost a decade, the Los Angeles–based artist has been making these self-described “moving paintings,” which are DVD projections that shift slowly among luscious panels of luminous color as images drift in and out of focus like a slowly turning flipbook of jumbled dreams and memories. Rather than aligning himself with a history of abstract film and video, Blake, who studied at the California Institute of the Arts between 1989 and 1993, insists that his work emerges from the world of painting, which may be true. But his work affects how we understand the boundary between painting and film, as well as that between art and entertainment. And that makes a lot of people mad.
“I like taking what’s good about painting and what’s good about film, and knocking against both of them, playing pranks on them,” says Blake, sitting in his Venice studio. “I like to create these abstractions that come and go like mirages, that impress you as superforms but then they go away. They’re ideologically fluid instead of ideologically fixed, and I think that’s a big difference between my generation and the previous generation in terms of approach. But it’s also a migration of painting away from the canvas. In a way, I guess, I’m trying to free up the terms of both mediums by crossing them. I’m kind of contrarian.”
This contrarian bent continues in Blake’s video portraits, which he began making three years ago. Reading Ossie Clark, the first, is a surprisingly poignant rendering of the notable British fashion designer who hovered around the edges of the art world (he’s a prominent subject for David Hockney, for example); it perfectly captures a sense of increasing dementia, which Blake claims was evident in Clark’s diary, by carefully orchestrating black-and-white film imagery and dozens of images that float in and out of focus. Screened as part of the Whitney Biennial in 2004, the piece, hip and baroque at the same time, was enormously popular.
With Sodium FoX,Blake continues to render portraits that gesture at their subject rather than picture clearly. “The main concern for me is whether or not the images have this quality of remaining internal, as if you’re witnessing the internal workings of someone’s memory rather than a documentary or traditional narrative film,” says Blake, who adds that he was also compelled by the hallucinatory quality of old film noir movies. “I like the fact that I can take those hallucination sequences and flashbacks and expand on them a little bit, and try to get something where you have a really resonant relationship between what’s said and what’s seen, where there’s some kind a disconnect between the two, which to me really does feel like the quality of memory, the quality of internal processes without the interference from the stuff that normal film typically requires.”
For the soundtrack, Blake incorporates a series of poetic fragments written and then read by Berman. “A really finished story didn’t serve my purposes,” explains Blake, “but David had a bunch of fragments that were really polished sentences. To me they read like Nietzschean aphorisms, or work by Oscar Wilde, or Ed Ruscha paintings, or Richard Prince jokes.” Some of the fragments are funny, and some are enigmatic. “I feel like I spent my childhood blowing on dandelions for nothing,” the voice complains near the beginning of the film. “The breakdown of the bicameral mind . . . Swords of silence . . . Where wayward yes men go to be alone . . .” It’s only through accretion over the 14-minute running time that the fragments begin to resonate.
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Despite the visual cacophony and disjointed voice-over, the piece follows a recognizable timeline — we move through childhood, attempts to figure things out, a battle against addiction, and the appearance of a kind of muse. “The film is basically this struggle for the character to get outside of himself, his problems and his past, but it’s handled in this incredibly romantic, poetic way,” says Blake. “And the relationship between the visuals and what’s being said has many, many layers.”
Blake’s use of so many layers and the collaging of iconographic images is part of a larger movement in art toward a database sensibility, in which artworks make viewers aware of the processes of selection and combination. In Blake’s case, what’s so compelling is the tension between our recognition of the images — they range from Abe Lincoln to cartoon characters to Blake’s own childhood drawings — and the reinscription of those images within Berman’s world, and even further, imagining the role of those images in Blake’s life. Indeed, Sodium Fox is as much a portrait of Blake as it is of Berman. “I like taking portraiture in a completely new direction,” continues Blake. “Instead of being surface, they’re incredibly deep, and instead of not having a voice, they have a lot to say. I think the value of portraiture is when it becomes universal and has metaphoric or figural meaning, and I’m trying to keep it open enough so that it can be intersubjective.”
In addition to challenging our notions of portraiture, the film is also a challenge to museums and galleries. More-entrenched institutions have some trouble knowing how to categorize the work, and how to get funding to support it. “It’s still an uncomfortable fit in the art world because of the categories it combines,” Blake says, adding that he’s run up against many prejudices against his pieces because they’re, well, entertaining. “The art world has changed, though. The entertainment value of these films would have been really unwelcome until recently, and now it’s both unwelcome and incredibly popular. It makes no sense! There’s a really schizo relationship to pop culture because the barriers have broken down so far that basically the art world has to deal with having a privileged perspective on the one hand and being a subcategory of the entertainment industry, which is really what it is now, on the other hand. But I think this work is up to the challenge of that world. And it pisses people off.”
JEREMY BLAKE’S SODIUM FOX | Honor Fraser Inc., 1337 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, www.honorfraser.com | Wed.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. | Sept. 9 through Nov. 4