Jonathan Podwil

The art historian Gertrud Koch once characterized Gerhard Richter’s famously fuzzy-edged technique as the “Richter-scale of blur.” I thought of this phrase when viewing Jonathan Podwil’s recent exhibition of painting and film. The artist’s still and moving images feature scenes in which people and objects make their way across the expanse of the frame, with the “blur” factoring heavily in determining a moment between motion and stasis. Yet Podwil’s images operate within a plodding register of animation that calls attention to the tactile qualities of film rather than commenting on painting’s long-fraught relationship with still photography. Dividing the show into two adjacent rooms, he allowed for simultaneous visual access to both sides of his practice from a single standpoint. One room contained four DVDs projected directly onto the walls, while the other housed seven small paintings.

Podwil employs a variety of motifs in his works, though the common denominator is the filmic image. Using found footage as well as Super-8 reels that he has shot himself, Podwil turns the crisp celluloid forms into agitated painterly scenarios. In the painting Rommel’s Funeral, 2001, an angled aerial view of two cars on a street can be made out amid an urban setting. For the work, grainy black-and-white imagery of the Nazi general’s 1944 burial was taken from the collaboratively produced film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in autumn; 1978), which deals with the climactic moments of Germany’s 1970s terrorism crisis. The ominous nature of both subjects is evoked by the dark gray and cream-colored paint laid on in loose brushstrokes. A similar noir sensibility comes across in another painting, based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1970 The American Soldier. Karl Scheydt’s hired-killer character can be vaguely discerned as he steps out of his car, a long American sedan. Again, the cinematic image takes on a streaky appearance, as if the reel hadn’t completely come to a stop.

Podwil’s method involves a painstaking manipulation of his materials, especially in his digitally animated loops, which reveal acts of distortion to the original footage. Crashtest, 2001, takes this familiar sequence directly from a video and passes it through a series of computer modifications, adjusting the speed to an awkward slow motion and turning a sharp recording into gauzy layers of scratches and smears. His images’ menacing atmosphere doesn’t always rely on subjects like urban warfare or the criminal underworld. For Stagger, 2001–02, Podwil, standing on the roof of his upper-story Brooklyn apartment, filmed pedestrians walking on the sidewalk with shopping bags; an intimation of the hidden violence of everyday life hovers in the air. The images show how the “blur” can give the most seemingly mundane pictures a threatening quality—demonstrating at the same time that media cross-pollination is as rich in possibility as ever.

Gregory Williams