RM Vaughan - Restless Stills: John Abrams’s Varnished Cinema 2008
It's the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.
A film is a petrified fountain of thought.
- Jean Cocteau
Somewhere in the middle of these opposing (and yet strangely both true) statements by two very different types of geniuses (who would undoubtedly have disliked each other immensely, and pretended otherwise) lies the truth about movies.
Movies, cinema, film (I use these terms interchangeably, if only to cheese off cineastes, movie buffs and other snobs),is, without a reasonable doubt, the single most powerful art form of the last 100 years. It’s supremacy (extended and consolidated by television in the 1950s) is unchallenged, fair or not.
No sane person could argue that performance art or painting or video art (trust me on that one, I make the junk myself), poetry or fiction or theatre (ditto) come close to matching cinema’s vast impact, it’s commercial power, nor it’s pervasiveness. Walk down any street and try to find five people who have not seen Star Wars. It can’t be done, even in Bhutan, or rural New Brunswick (and I oughta know). Try the same test, with the converse goal (to find, for instance, five people who have read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or have seen a production of John Herbert’s Fortune In Men’s Eyes, or are versed in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations … I could go on here, but it’s too depressing), and, well, it can’t be done. Not even in rural New Brunswick.
The movies are not magic, they’re necromantic. They took over the world long before we were born.
So, what to make of the two disparate statements above? Let’s mix them, splice them together, make a montage: It’s the movies that have really been running things because they are a petrified fountain of thought. Now, that works.
Movies capture time and place and person better than amber catches Eocene bugs. But movies are also forces (and enforcers) of political and economic will, shapers of societies, product pushers (self-selling sellers, products carting products) and a great place to get fashion tips. Everybody knows this, and everybody plays along, because, at least for a couple of hours one night a week, it’s kind of nice to be told what to do, to be led along, manipulated
In the darkened movie theatre, we are all bottoms, submissives, willing players in a game of master and servant. Yes, that sounds kinky, but we’ve naturalized the behaviour, so the sexual dynamics are almost wholly secondary now. Just sit back, relax …. it’s only a movie.
John Abrams appears to have forgotten the rules when it comes to movie going, forgotten how the active/passive game is played.
John Abrams wants us to take back the power of the gaze: to re-assert ourselves as the prime movers, shakers and deal makers of the cultural information flow and turn off the movies’ seductive bump & grind music and replace it with pensive tone poems; to (literally) stop the moving picture, put a chock under that great huffing steamroller that flattens all art caught in its path, the unstoppable force Edison (or was it Frances Farmer?) called “the lying machine”.
With these paintings, John Abrams has done something very audacious, even a little bit bratty. John Abrams has turned the lights on midway through the movie.
All movies are about two things: cunt and horses.
- Harry “King” Cohn, Columbia Pictures mogul and legendary bastard.
Though we have yet to see much of either of the above-mentioned movie determinants in John Abrams’s paintings, they do linger just underneath his more elegant choices of subject matter. What, after all, is a speeding bullet car or a corner-cutting motorcycle, two favourite Abrams icons, but an updated version of the cinema’s first true star, a horse in full gallop? And all those open, dewy, mysterious female faces that dapple his paintings, those screen queen Sphinxes with their knowing and unknowable, reticent but alluring mouths? Well, you fill in the blanks.
John Abrams paints like he is in love with his subjects (and perhaps a bit in lust too, Mr. Cohn, we admit it), as if he wants to possess them fully, to own and be owned by both their misty, shifting surfaces and their representational fury. And who wouldn’t want to get cozy with Brigitte Bardot?
The longing that characterizes an Abrams painting is baldly evident in (indeed, made evident by) the very substance, the goop and splash, the paint in his paintings, in the way he applies pigment and unguent to flat screens, creates his pig bristle mis-en-scenes. The paint is not so much brushed as stroked, fluffed up, coddled and buffed to an unnatural sheen. Abrams treats paint like a slow moving liquid, a soft glass alloy that needs to be beveled, shaped, glazed and primped.
And yet, his paintings are hardly cold, stiff or opaque. Rather, you can almost feel the downy skin, the bumps and moles, on his movie star faces, almost fix your hair by the watery reflections he casts, kick the bumpy rubber tires under his sexy roadsters. Abrams makes softness sharp and sharpness as pillowy as clouds. It keeps you on your toes, this constant interplay between the smooth and the textured, between gleam and gristle. An Abrams painting breathes, even pants.
And if that’s not enough to convince you that Abrams is unnaturally attached to his cinematic lovers, is a kind of invisible Zelig who inserts his own desires and his seduced readings of his chosen movies into every frame he reworks, consider his colour choices. Abrams takes movies already laden with high romance (and high neurosis), such as Betty Blue, Contempt, or Breathless, and recasts them in bold, melodramatic, symbol-laden patinas, in Jungian archetypal rainbows. Hot reds and fire oranges, urine and sunflower yellows, blues and indigos culled from oil slicks and the murky bottoms of wet tumblers. Hot damn! As the old cliché goes, he dreams in Technicolor.
Abrams is not a subtle painter, nor would we want him to be, because if you’re going to remake a classic, you better have something new to say. Abrams wants us to see these beloved films as if we were sitting in front of an already flickering screen and were suddenly handed the psychological equivalent of 3-D glasses, magical eyewear that allowed us to enter the multi-layered, deeply wounded worlds of the protagonists – double worlds where people moving on screen represent both the obvious (people moving on screen), and the covert (people enacting unspoken or unrealized desires, haunted people and their haunters).
Abrams paintings are infrared scans, thermal printouts, MRIs aimed at the guts of a drama, X-Ray Specs that actually work.
A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually.
- Francis Ford Coppola
When you’re a writer, people come up to you at parties and tell you stories they think would make a great play/novel/article/epic poem. Sadly, the stories are rarely as good as the tellers think they are. Very rarely.
I have committed the same sin with John Abrams, repeatedly. I am constantly telling him about movies I think would make great paintings. He smiles, pretends to remember the names of the flicks, and lets it drop, because my taste in movies is, shall we say, less than stellar. I like stupid movies, movies with explosions and monsters. I have enough to worry about in my life. The last thing I want to do is go sit in a dark room with a bunch of unhappy eggheads and worry some more.
I suspect Abrams chooses to work with “art house classics” for two reasons: one, because you can’t beat quality, and two, because, as perhaps you’ve already noticed, Abrams is drawn to (pun intended) films that have a disrespectful attitude toward narrative conventions. He likes films that move back and forth in time, movies that unfold in fragments, in frantic jump cuts and pensive, puzzling longueurs, in pieces – because, of course, such films are ripe for sampling, are already broken into mosaic tiles.
But a strange thing happens on the way to the gallery wall – these legendarily slippery films, under Abrams’s tutelage, become comprehensible, almost sensible. It’s as if by stopping the reels Abrams in effect breaks the films down to their core visual cues, and we suddenly understand them in a new way.
I am not arguing that Abrams “straightens” these movies via some sort of crassly linear, Classics Illustrated treatment. What I mean is that in the process of translation, of being changed from moving to static, from time-based to independent of time, the movies become wholly Abrams’s creations – they only refer to a source material, they do not mimic it. And because Abrams seeks to turn the source material inside out and vivify its psychological truths (see rambling above) we get a two-for-one deal: a re-imagining of the original material and a whole new entertainment.
It’s only fair -- the movies have been stealing from painting since the invention of the magic lantern. Cecil B. DeMille poached whole set pieces from Gustave Moreau, Fritz Lang (an indirect mentor to Goddard, who is himself the favourite shoplifting victim of Abrams) pilfered all his shadows and fogs from the Die Brucke gang. Hitchcock was practically milk fed Surrealism, and did not forgot it, and John Ford never saw an Albert Bierstadt oil he couldn’t replicate on screen.
Abrams’s movie paintings complete the circle, take back the picture in “picture show”, with gorgeous displays of respectful disrespect; with splattered, carnivalesque parades of loose fluids and inky cataracts that pay homage to all the stuff movies don’t want to show us they are made of, the messy collisions of celluloid and chemicals, the animate particles, all that chemistry. Abrams wants us to remember that no matter how pretty, glossy or clean a movie looks, it is, at heart (and in the lab) a sticky proposition (literally and metaphorically).
Film lovers are sick people.
Be smart, but never show it.
Louis B. Mayer
My friendship with John, and his work (I am capable of considering a painting a friend – as sentimental, or just mental, as that may be) is a curious one. Of all the artists I know, John is the quietest, the most reluctant to speak, which is a strange way for a painter with Cinerama aspirations to behave. Getting him to explain what he’s up to is like getting a teenage boy to talk about his love life. So many shrugs, half sentences.
But then, John is in love, and young love, with his work. Despite nearly three decades of painting, he still approaches each new painting -- at least in the formative, giddy first kiss moments -- with all the wonder and awe (and, yes, fear) on twitchy display at any junior high dance. He walks up to the canvas as if about to ask a pretty girl to dance. I wonder if he blushes, stutters? After that first contact, however, the master painter takes over and, if I may stretch the teen lust metaphor, ends up making out with the lucky girl behind the band stand.
Don’t let all the high-concept conundrums these painting carry fool you – John is a very physical painter, and a very instinctual artist. He studies his subjects (imagine the wear and tear on his rewind button!), plots a plan of action, works all the scenarios, hues, angles and aspect ratios in his head … then has at it like a bear in a dumpster.
He scrapes off more paint, covers over more first impressions, than an aging burlesque dancer. He mangles the paint, makes it mind. He draws and redraws, erases and, if unsure, just does a whole new painting based on the first. He is tireless and perhaps a bit obsessive. All he needs for such single-minded work habits, the tyranny he imposes on himself, to more perfectly resemble those of the stereotypical barking film director is a monocle and jodhpurs (except he never yells – all the drama ends up on the canvas).
Because he is such a retiring tyrant, I sometimes feel like I don’t have a clue who the real John Abrams is, apart from the one I see in his work. I am, converse to John, one of those artists who never shuts up (and I’m hardly alone in that caste). I’ll talk to a houseplant, a fridge door.
Working with John, I’ve realized that some artists are best left to their own devices, need their own silences. If John was a movie, cornball as that conceit may be, he’d be one of those films that takes its sweet, careful time to reveal its depths, radiances, shocking plot twists – one of those movies you need, and want, to watch over and over.
McMaster Museum of Art. Hamilton. Curator: RM Vaughan.
Catalogue with essays by: RM Vaughan, Sky Gilbert, John Greyson, Jeremy Podeswa, RM Vaughan, and Christina Ziedler.2008