The Painted Whale

by Paddy Johnson and Matthew Leifheit on December 13, 2013 The Best of The Reeler

The installation view of Jacco Olivier's Whale (2006), animation on DVD. (Image courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery)

The installation view of Jacco Olivier’s Whale (2006), animation on DVD. (Image courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery)

Throughout December, we’re highlighting Paddy Johnson’s film and video reviews from The ReelerThis piece was originally published on February 8, 2007.

At some point you have to ask what more an artist can do with the surface of a canvas. Over the last century, art makers invented fractured perspective as a means of depicting objects, gestural mark-making to represent emotion, created monochromatic, photorealist and commercially inspired works — the list goes on. It’s not too surprising that by the ’70s, the number of ways you could approach the medium seemed exhausted and that people were declaring the medium dead. Little did they know that we’d have to wait 20 more years for Keith Boadwee to shit enema bags of paint onto a canvas before we could hammer the final nail in that coffin.

I’m half-joking of course — we’ve obviously seen good painting since Boadwee — but I bring the subject up because the field feels narrow, and only a few artists among them like Jacco Olivier, whose current painted films can be seen at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, have been able to find a working method that pushes the medium forward. Of course, fine art animation strikes no one as new, but Olivier’s fusion of painting and video, while coming out of a tradition best exemplified by William Kentridge’s charcoal drawing stop-motion films, separates itself from its predecessors by abandoning stop-animation for fluid cinematic techniques and being much more concerned with formalism than narrative.

Composed of five silent one- to two-minute videos in the main space and a three-screen projection in the back room, Olivier frequently collages scans of paint with larger painted forms and dissolves the documentation of different stages of the painting into one another. The giant blue triptychWhale, for example, marks the movements and changes of the animal with an accompanying underwater soundtrack. The piece spans an impressive 43 feet across the gallery, but beyond its size, what lends Whale its authority is the relationship to paint and subject matter; specifically, I’m referring to the fluidity of the medium, which matches the Whale’s environment and its movement — a pleasing approach constituting a lyrical continuity. Whale runs seven minutes in length, making it the longest video in the show, though interestingly it also boasts the least scenic transitions: The video consists almost entirely of the movements of the creature’s body.

The show’s smaller works are generally less successful than Whale, though they aren’t bad by any means. Community, one of five small projections (ranging from 7 3/4 x 13 1/4 inches to 9 1/2 x 12 inches), begins with a fluid zooming in of the camera on the subject of a farm house and barn, eventually panning across to what appears to be a procession into a forest, toward a young couple dry-humping on the grass. In this case the work hovers between the filmic conventions of narrative and time and formalist painting, which tends to be less concerned with either dynamic.

(L-R) Stills from Jacco Olivier's animated works Community, Tide and Calling

(L-R) Stills from Jacco Olivier’s animated works Community, Tide and Calling

While Community has moments of greatness, particularly as the rendered forms move in and out of abstraction, it never manages to capture the eloquence of the larger projection. Part of this simply comes from the fact that all the smooth panning shots of moving paint make less visual sense in open air than they do in water, but more essentially, the subject matter does not engage the viewer’s interest as effectively; watching a whale shift its weight in the water for seven minutes proves much more interesting than teenagers who fuck, as you’re never compelled to ask what purpose the narrative has in the former.

I have the same complaints about the other smaller videos, but they really don’t add up to much when the execution of the work as a whole is so flawless. What’s more, it represents a place for painting that sits somewhere between the formalist concern for the medium and the manipulation of that concern in time. The death of painting, if it happens at all, will not be in the near future; that doesn’t mean, however, that it shouldn’t be evaluated in relation to other media- and art-making techniques. As Keith Boadwee’s ass amply demonstrates, there are only so many things you can do with a canvas, but the medium can take on new life transposed in another.

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