Jeff Frost looks like he's still in a band, with four daggers of black hair pointing straight up from the top of his head and an insouciance in his voice and swagger that suggests he's in no hurry for anything at all. But he left the band behind several years ago, and has since devoted his quietly obsessive energies to video and photography, or more precisely, to the alchemy of time and space and spirit.
Frost works in time-lapse and stop motion, two techniques that both decouple time and space from their respective continuities. He takes individual pictures, freezing time and space, and then strings them tougher again, adding a new sense of temporal and spatial flow, and what he achieves in this seemingly simple process is nothing less than dazzling.
Frost's remarkable 2012 short video "Flawed Symmetry of Prediction" combines time-lapse imagery of the sky at night, a fire in the desert, and the world just outside a series of abandoned houses. These empty, often derelict rooms become canvases for Frost's painting experiments, which are captured in stop motion. This means that Frost sets up a camera, and then begins to paint; he steps out of the frame, takes a picture, steps back in, paints a bit more, and again steps out of the frame and takes another picture. And so on for literally hours. When these images are played sequentially, the painted lines and squares that transform the geometrical reality of the room they're in seem to appear magically by themselves. The result is that Frost is able to create portraits of imaginary worlds by collaging the real and the painted, and he does this in a very material way rather than using visual effects and a computer.
Frost says that the inspiration for these paintings is science and physics and the mind-bending paradoxes related to topics such as string theory and the multiple dimensions of reality. "What I do with my art is not so much a top-down message," he explains. "In a lot of ways, it's me trying to wrap my head around things. It comes from the gut; it's raw and messy and busy; but I like the concept of creation and destruction being the same thing. A lot of this work is me trying to wrap my head around the ultimate weirdness of the world."
Frost is currently working with more than 300,000 still images as part of the process of finishing up another bigger project titled "Circle of Abstract Ritual," which explores the cycles of creation and destruction. The two-year endeavor includes sections of images captured during violent protests against police brutality after an unarmed man was shot just outside Frost's apartment in Anaheim in the summer of 2012. "People were upset, and they pushed a burning dumpster into a five-lane highway," Frost explains. "But Anaheim is the home of Disneyland, and the police didn't want that." The result, says Frost, was several days of chaos, with riots, police dogs and fires. "I started time-lapsing the mayhem day and night," Frost says, and the images he shows are unforgettable portraits of rage hovering in suspended time. "I don't know if there's anything like this in the time-lapse world," he admits, and he may be right.
In addition to these riveting images of protest, Frost has also been taking photographs found as he sneaks into abandoned spaces in the city, such as a massive, empty Home Depot building in Anaheim, or the eerie halls of the Linda Vista hospital in Los Angeles, or even storm drains and underpasses, all of which become spectral haunts or perspective-bending architectural marvels as they're seen through the lens of Frost's camera.
Frost has also been visiting the desert lately. If you've ever been to Yucca Valley or Joshua Tree, you might fathom the desert's pull on a man like Frost; it's an inexorable tugging that compels him to leave behind the crowded, busy city to venture into the vast openness of sand and space just a few hours east of Los Angeles. The arid and dramatic landscape, as well as the sense of adventure conjured by being out there alone, reminds Frost of his childhood and the exploits he enjoyed with his grandfather, Alfred, exploring the mountains and plateaus of rural Utah. "He taught me curiosity and the desire to explore abandoned places," says Frost.
Later in life, the desert brought solace. "When I used to get unhappy, I'd go to the desert and camp out by myself. Alone at night, I felt like I could connect with the universe. I felt like I was part of this bigger whole, and in comparison with the immensity of the universe, my problems seemed insignificant."
Frost began making artworks in the desert. For one, titled "War Paint for Trees," he wrapped strips of material around the torqued branches of dead Joshua trees, and then created time-lapse images and video to produce a haunting portrait of a magical world of death and hope.
While he was working on that project, he met an artist named Steve Shigley, who goes by the name Shig. They began talking and quickly became friends. Shig's current artwork is dedicated to transforming Joshua trees as well. He works with trees that have been damaged in fires and cauterized by flames; he describes them as almost petrified. Shig covers the trees with a sealant, turns them upside down and then cuts them so that they can stand up like uncanny spiritual figures roaming the sand dunes out in the desert sun.
Frost met another desert denizen, artist Cain Motter, who owns a place called Domeland, a geodesic dome that his dad began building many years ago and which Motter has now turned into an artists' community. Shig, Motter and Frost began collaborating on what will be the final section of Frost's current project last year. In the section, two circles of Shig's trees will rotate in opposite directions, creating an evocative depiction of death and creation.
Frost, Shig and Motter spent two months clearing the hilltop where the trees would stand, flattening out the dirt and moving dead wood and big rocks. The shoot itself took place over two nights last November. Frost explains that, for budgetary reasons, he had to count on the good will of volunteers to help with the massive project. He created a sample video that showed what he was trying to do and managed to engage 13 people intrigued enough to help out.
They all meet at Domeland, and once it was dark enough, began the laborious process of moving 13 trees inch by inch in the two large circles to create the animated effect Frost was seeking. "The trees in the inner circle were 13 feet tall, and they're incredibly heavy," Frost explains. "I was terrified that they would tip over and someone would get hurt. Some did fall -- one landed about four inches away from me -- and it was pretty scary at first. There was a lot of confusion when we started, and then the light bulbs went on. People started moving the trees with a kind of rhythm and balance and good timing." Frost says he played several types of music at the start, trying to find a beat that would synch with the group's movements. "We ended up with old school blues music, Muddy Waters, and that got us into a groove. We moved those trees until 5:00 a.m. both nights."
Frost says that while he's very happy with the material he captured during the two-night shoot, he's also very interested in the connections that emerged and the sense of magic they all felt. "We all had experiences that we can't explain," he says, adding a quick caveat: "I'm not a mystic! That said, it's hard to explain what happens there - there's some aspect that goes beyond words. Walking around those trees, I had such intense experiences. They're so beautiful and graceful and I was filled with awe and there's something to it that I just can't explain."
Frost expects to finish his film by late February. And after that? "I'm hoping to do a film on fire," he says eagerly, explaining that he plans to train in order to get certified to be on the front lines of a major blaze with his camera. It only makes sense. Fire, like the night sky featured so frequently in Frost's work, or the vast desert that has inspired him lately, is a profound expression of ineffable power and beauty, embodying the potential for total annihilation alongside absolute creation. And these are the things that exhilarate Frost, pushing him to test the limits of his camera and his own fortitude in order to find ways to express the often extraordinary elemental forces of nature all around us.