Outward Bound

Ed Halter on Jennifer Reeves's When It Was Blue

Jennifer Reeves, When It Was Blue, 2008, still from a color and black-and-white film in 16 mm, 67 minutes.

WHEN IT WAS BLUE (2008), Jennifer Reeves’s new 16-mm film performance with live musical accompaniment, will be presented at the Kitchen in New York this week, marking the culmination of a work that took more than four years for the artist to create. Its scale is appropriately epic: With a running time of just over an hour, the piece consists of two films projected one atop the other on a single screen, each reel containing a constant stream of images captured from the landscapes of Canada, the United States, Central America, Iceland, and New Zealand, frequently optically printed into high-contrast near abstraction or hand-painted with thick swaths of organic blue, ocher, green, or red. The montage is quick and palpitant, precisely edited in its two layers to a mix of wind, insect chatter, birdsong, and music composed by Skúli Sverrisson, and feels effortlessly light and nimble despite its formidable density. Seemingly always on the move, When It Was Blue flits through an ever-changing world of sun-struck treetops, billowing hills, collapsing glaciers, and efflorescent lava, stopping for scant seconds for portraits of owls, seafowl, snakes, and the occasional human. The double projection grants the experience a flickering, phantom depth—a richly tactile effect that has been utilized to diverse ends historically by filmmakers like Barbara Rubin and Paul Sharits and more recently by Glen Fogel and Luis Recoder. The optical thickness combines with the strumming, susurrant soundscape to create an alluring, enveloping journey.

Among contemporary 16-mm film artists, Reeves is not alone in her desire to engage with the natural world. As celluloid enters the winter of its existence, Peter Hutton and James Benning have continued their solitary Bolex treks to capture vistas of desert, ocean, and clouds; David Gatten has submerged film stock inside saltwater crab traps and Luther Price has buried footage in moldy backyard dirt, both aiming for beautifully deteriorated emulsion; Jeanne Liotta has aimed her camera at the night sky’s stars and Julie Murray has investigated insect life with a magnifying lens. No doubt the fragile stuff of film, made newly strange in an age of immaterial electronic images, encourages the contemplation of change and chance, birth and death; such notions are registered through utterly physical means by Reeves in the fractal cracks of distressed pigment that adorn some of her hand-edited frames and in the tidal flows of thick, opalescent paint, sometimes dotted with stellar bubbles of captured air, that wash across other moments. These more formalist sequences hark back to Reeves’s earlier films like Fear of Blushing (2001), bespeaking a genealogy of lyric avant-gardists like Len Lye and Stan Brakhage (and glimpses of the rocky Vancouver shore indeed bring to mind some of the latter’s final work, likewise shot in British Columbia). But When It Was Blue should not be understood as a half century's echo of Dog Star Man (1961–64); here, Reeves looks not mythically inward but phenomenally outward, attempting to embrace and commune with a realm seemingly beyond human experience that has nevertheless been made poignantly precious through its rapid endangerment.

Jennifer Reeves's film When It Was Blue will be screened at the Kitchen in New York on Wednesday, October 29, and Thursday, October 30. It will be accompanied by live music from Skúli Sverrisson, Anthony Burr, and Eyvind Kang. For more information, click here.