Jennifer West: Abstract Expressionist?

Artforum CoverThe cover story for this month's Artforum is titled "Acting Out: The Ab Ex Effect," and both reexamines Abstract Expressionism and traces the lasting impact of the post World War II art movement on contemporary artists. The essay also features sidebar contributions from 14 artists, asking how Abstract Expressionism influences their work.

One of the respondents is LA artist Jennifer West, known for her avant-garde films, made by doing terrible things to the film stock and emulsion - scratching, wrinkling, drenching, piercing and so on. In some ways, her work might be considered akin to the that of Jackson Pollock - after their poor treatment, the films become abstract washes and splotches of color and lines, and West engages in a radical, very physical approach to her materials and her craft. West, however, denies the connection, explaining instead that a more suitable lineage would be that of experimental filmmakers such as Man Ray and Len Lye, who also worked directly with film stock in making many of their cameraless films. She also references Stan Brakhage, whose body of work includes an extraordinary collection of hand-painted films, with paint applied frame by frame.

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Lavender MistWest also disavows the role of gesture, writing, "I'm more concerned with the actions of social groupings than with the individual gesture - which is why I often make my work with friends, students, artists, writers, kids, skaters, surfers, even the babysitter." She continues, offering a convincing argument that her work is not aligned with the overall project of the Abstract Expressionists, at least as it is remembered conventionally. "My films aren't autonomous, self-contained works of art but highly referential, narrative, mediated, quotational affairs that provoke questions." She concludes by noting that she's not interested in "some heroic sublime - my work's more a DIY thing." (That said, West did make a film, Lavender Mist Film/Pollock Film 1, that she calls a "remake" of a Pollock piece, and used hallucinogenic flowers and lavender mist air freshener on the film stock.)

Dawn Surf Jellybowl FilmIf you want to see an example of West's work, you only need visit the yard of a Santa Barbara resident any weekend through July 17, 2011. The project, Dawn Surf Jellybowl Film, is part of the celebrated Home Show, Revisited exhibition, for which curators Miki Garcia and Michele O'Marah invited 10 artists from LA "to reconsider the societal and cultural notion of 'home' by creating site-specific installations in residences throughout Santa Barbara."

Dawn Surf Jellybowl Film's description captures West's process: "16mm film negative sanded with surfboard shaping tools, sex wax melted on, squirted, dripped, splashed, sprayed and rubbed with donuts, zinc oxide, cuervo, sunscreen, hydrogen peroxide, tecate, sand, tar, scraped with a shark's tooth, edits made by the surf and a seal while film floated in waves - surfing performed by Andy Perry, Makela Moore, Alanna Moore, Zach Moore, Johnny McCann - shot by Peter West - film negative sanded by Mariah Csepanyi, Andy Perry and Jwest, 2011, 8 minutes, 15 seconds." As West asserts, this is a very different model of both creation and expression than what we imagine of someone such as Pollock, and the project's site specificity forms yet another layer of significance; West's work is often tied specifically to venue, audience and even performance.

Home Show, Revisited, an exhibition of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, is a third iteration (earlier shows took place in 1988 and 1996), and allows visitors to view homes Friday-Saturday, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., and on Sunday, noon - 5:00 p.m. West's installation is on view until 9:00 p.m. Visitors need to visit the Contemporary Arts Forum to pick up a map and wrist band before starting the tour.

While you're there, check out Michele O'Marah's video portraits of LA-based artists and musicians. The show features a multi-channel installation of the videos, which are modeled on Andy Warhol's Screen Tests from the 1960s. This show is also on view through July 17, 2011.

About the Author

Holly Willis teaches in USC's School of Cinematic Arts and writes about new media art. She is the author of "New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image" and editor of "The New Ecology of Things" on pervasive computing.
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