Jeremy Blake’s Cinematic Color

Carolyn L. Kane

Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University, Providence

Carolyn Kane presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

Carolyn Kane presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

“Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time.”
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964) [1]

American artist Jeremy Blake (1971-2007) is known for his mysterious time-based digital paintings. Yet shortly after his untimely death, investigations revealed formerly unknown details about his production process and in particular, his reliance on a certain piece of software. Dan Levin, writing for the New York Times reported:

They discovered Mr. Blake’s labeled folders in Adobe Photoshop, the graphics-editing software. Each folder contained sequential picture files with titles. But within each dense file were numerous layers of the artist’s ‘moving painting’ imagery, their intended direction and flow indecipherable. [2]

Why has this fact of Blake’s work since been ignored? Perhaps his dependence on commercial software in the production of fine art is too abrasive, embarrassing even, to the conventions of the art world and its deep-seated mythology of the genius-artist? Regardless, the fact remains: Blake’s luminous and mystically colored time-based paintings originated in Adobe Photoshop and bear the trappings of this prefabricated framework.

And thus one is invited to consider what Adobe Photoshop is, what it means for contemporary aesthetics, and how the use of software applications like Photoshop condition and alters creative production today. In this brief abstract, a fragment extracted from the last chapter of my forthcoming book, Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code (University of Chicago Press 2014), I argue that Blake’s cinematic colors and digital artworks, complemented by digital colors and special effects in such recent feature films as Pleasantville (2000) directed by Gary Ross; Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), both directed by Richard Linklater, and Speed Racer (2008) directed by Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, is characterized by highly stylized uses of digital color that I call the Photoshop cinema.

Carolyn Kane explaining the Photoshop Cinema at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.) 02-Kane-lightning-2014

Carolyn Kane explaining the Photoshop Cinema at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)
02-Kane-lightning-2014

My arguments, however, for the most part focus on Jeremy Blake’s work. Between 1998 and 2007, Jeremy Blake made nineteen colorful ‘time-based paintings,’ each running between three to twenty minutes and on occasion for longer, though the work is often shown in a loop, making length somewhat irrelevant. His work is exhibited on plasma screens, as a projection on a gallery wall, museum, or private collection. Blake has collaborated with such established directors and musicians as Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch Drunk Love (2002), Lars Von Trier for the opening sequence of Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Beck for his album Sea Change (2002). He has also created several illustrations, large C-prints, and mixed media images, often thematically connected to the time-based work.

Blake’s subject matter derives from the culture and history of southern California. As he puts it, “stilted dialogue, cheap special effects, and the prefab accouterments of success (hot tubs, vacation homes, powerful drugs…)” selected from “Hollywood’s psychic dustbin.” The city of Los Angeles also plays a key role a number of his works, including Chemical Sundown (2001), while Hollywood features prominently in Century 21 (2003) and Bungalow 8 (2001). The American frontier and the Wild West are the subjects of the Winchester Trilogy (2002-2004), while the former punk rock sub-culture lies at the heart of Glitterbest (unfinished, 2007) and fashion, drugs, and music are prevalent in Reading Ossie Clark (2005), Angel Dust (2001), and Sodium Fox (2005).

The Photoshop cinema involves the use of saturated, thick, digital colors that figure as stylistic and conceptual opacities in regard to meaning, narrative, and image. By stylistic opacity, I mean the literal use of thick and rich colors, generated through Photoshop or similar software applications. By conceptual opacity I mean artwork characterized by an impenetrable style of cool, almost aloof indifference. Together, I conclude, these stylistic and conceptual opacities constitute a new paradigm of digital colorism that bids adieu to expressionistic palettes and subjective color values, welcoming instead the prêt-à-porter convenience of store-bought color and prefabricated software layouts and designed effects.

References:

1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964): 26.
2. Dan Levin, “After Death, Unfinished Artwork Gets a Life.” New York Times, November 29, 2007. E.1.

Bio:

Carolyn L. Kane is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University (2014-2015). In the fall of 2015 she will join Ryerson University as an Assistant Professor in the School of Professional Communications. Dr. Kane writes about the history and philosophy of new media and digital aesthetics. She is the author of Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code (University of Chicago Press 2014).
carolynleekane@gmail.com