Los Angeles

Jennifer West

Marc Foxx Gallery

For half a century, artists have been negotiating the vexed relationship between abstraction and representation. Los Angeles–based artist Jennifer West’s sexy, whimsical, painting-scale DVD projections walk that elusive line between pictorial modes with deftness, wit, and airy originality.

While West’s work slyly nods to past heroic modernist gestures, her subjects are rarely, if ever, grand or heroic, and her engagement with canonical narratives of abstraction are often oblique and irreverent. Sophomoric urban myths, harmless shenanigans, and the free-love legacy of 1970s psychedelia provide her with a lightweight arsenal to pursue her weighty course. For instance, in Hollywood Sign Film—for Peg Entwistle (35MM interpositive dripped with holly berry juice, painted with pepper spray & silver dust using a great horned owl feather—illegally climbing on the Hollywood Sign performances by Shamim Momin, Mariah Csepanyi and Jwest, lit by headlamps, flashlights and police search lights), 2009, the longest in duration of the four sequential projections in this exhibition (though by no means the longest in title)—three shady figures, barely discernible behind a veil of jittering colors and textures, are seen clambering onto LA’s iconic landmark. West created the interfering layer of color by applying a distinct set of materials directly to the surface of the 35-mm film before it was transferred to DVD.

West’s alchemical use of associative materials to evoke an event or to embody a memory is a method that might best be described as literal abstraction, and her titles would likely come off as pedantic, even pretentious, were they not also vitally suggestive and often very funny. The unorthodox “media” she lists are not particularly legible as such in her videos, but with the help of the paratextual signposts the artist provides, they operate as rich, almost pungent metonymic devices: Pepper spray, for example, alludes to the presence of the authorities on the scene (pridefully noted in the title), while the holly-berry juice and silver dust are nods to the participants’ preperformance “preparations.” Just as the title’s abundance of details identifying performers and processes overdetermines the subject of the video, so the stated subject is occluded and jumbled by the muddle of messy materials. Presented in a darkened space, the collective admixture of Hollywood Sign Film’s elements forms a loose metonymic chain, producing an abstraction that is equal parts intoxicated memory and séancelike evocation—leading the viewer through a seductive, psychedelic portal. Here, representation, abstraction, and a little titular help collude to form a new object.

The three remaining projections in the exhibition hew to roughly the same formula, but in each case, West’s postproduction application of materials was more vigorous than was the case with Hollywood Sign Film, nearly drowning the filmic action and producing something closer to pure abstraction. Though her work is far too playful and arresting to be a turgid critique of existentialist mythologies surrounding painters like Pollock, West’s insistence on identifying her materials, processes, and inspirations stands in distinct counterpoint to the hermeticism of midcentury abstraction. More important, however, is the fact that these glimmering abstractions owe their great appeal and presence in the gallery not just to the hand of the artist, but in equal part to the chance alchemy of film, writ large in these digital projections.

Christopher Bedford