By James Fotopoulos
Drawing for the video Chimera (2011), charcoal, graphite, pencil, Conté crayon, pastel on Bristol vellum paper
From “Dreamful Slumbers”:
In a horrible dreamful slumber;
Like the linked infernal chain;
A vast Spine writh’d in torment
Upon the winds; shooting pain’d
Ribs, like a bending cavern
And bones of solidness, froze
Over all his nerves of joy.
And a first Age passed over,
And a state of dismal woe.
(William Blake, The Book of Urizen)
The title of this show comes from a take on the line from William Blake’s The (First) Book of Urizen (1794). There are a number of ways in which I can expand upon his work, but the truth is that the line entered my mind with little complexity: I was thinking of the year I created the first cluster of drawing presented in the exhibition (2008). I was living in my studio, up through the night, working on these drawings among other things. It was a murky void. A self made trap I was working out of and Urizen came to mind.
There are many paths I can go down when discussing Blake: the merger of words and image, his own myths, the sprawling epics battling out his philosophies and histories. It all greatly appeals to me, but what I think about most are his ideas on the image – the bold lines of the form separated from the natural world and his method of engraving, where he used his corrosive etching technique (dissolving away the unwanted metal to reveal the image) to put into action his own thoughts of the human and the soul (the form separated from the chaos of nature).
Why I think this interested me is that I tried to avoid working with materials present here in the show for about seven years. I did not want to work in charcoal or any type of pastel.
For years I drew in graphite and ink and for a period did watercolors (since it was really drawing based). I was trying to match the image that I achieved in my video work, but translate it into a frozen object – basic and primitive.
Watercolor was very stable; the technique was unchanged for centuries, but it did not capture what I had achieved in the texture and chaos of video layering, which I wanted to shroud around the representative forms – mainly human bodies and animals. I needed the pieces of the forms to stand in a shadowy inner stew of color, filth, and symbols. Only the combinations of charcoal, graphite and pastels captured this. I rejected it, hated it (and still do) – but finally in 2008 succumbed to it.
I felt I had matured or peaked with my video image by 2008 (or achieved a sense of ease with the image). With The Sky Song (2007), I had started to become fatigued with the use of CGI animation but couldn’t completely let go yet – so I tried to bleed together parts of the computer figures with the actors in an attempt to make uniquely mutant images. I also used the computer figures as looping animations or spinning backgrounds – in a sense attempting in the crudest and quickest (aesthetically “worse”) way possible to push the software completely into the “other” or strange.”
Stills from the video The Sky Song (James Fotopoulos, 2007)
What I mean by “peaked” is not encompassed by one complete video work, but by a shot or moment of a shot within a video, it was a general sense of feeling that I wanted to transfer over from one medium to the next. For example, the low-fi color and re-taped slow moving video textures clashed with the hard digital lines and pixels in a piece like The River (2002) for only a few moments achieves this. In a sense take the “peak” of that video image, and freeze it as a singular image-object on paper. But where in video it was done with advance technology – the key now was to do it in the most primitive tools (but more advanced as “image” since the physical drawing was part of a longer history) – the pyramid base being the drawing with paper and charcoal on paper and tip being digital video a control over both the unconscious impulses (the chaos) and control over the conscious “action” of art-making – controlling one’s skill – the craft. What was I since the start? The answer – a draughtsman – on paper, or with a video camera. It didn’t matter.
Around 2009 I began to more heavily prepare my films. I had always in various ways sketched and boarded my work, but my experience on some larger projects lead me to define for myself what existed or didn’t exist as an “idea” in film production. For me, preparation had to intensify and function as an equal to the finished projects and this began with the Epsilon Indi (2009), The Unknown Collaboration (2009), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and then all since
(In my drawings this would operate as elements of technical preparation or sketch would bleed into finished drawings – the boundaries collapsed … Is a sketch more alive as an idea than the completed work?)
I began to draw every aspect of the films and try to make each drawing stand on its own – so if a film collapsed, the concept existed. So lets say if a film didn’t get made – it was made on paper and lived in sketch (in the shadows). Some of those ideas might float into another project or it would simply exist as drawings within my life-narrative of work.
Sketches for the video Epsilon Indi (James Fotopoulos, 2008)
From my essay Thoughts on Tron:
“A constant that has remained with me through my life is my interest in special effects, animation and puppetry. I enjoy works that are complete synthetic universes of effects the most. Counter to the popular trend to control production by collapsing the different productions phases into one via computers (which is a positive development if understood and managed properly – the phases always bled together, but now they can exist as a whole – a great advancement – when I draw, I draw as a whole). Much filmmaking hinges on how well one collects the various pieces of production and then arranges them to fall together – sometimes it all works, but most often it does not. Usually only certain parts of a film work. Now in the digital era, filmmaking has returned fully to the drawing impulse. For a while there was a separation – where only elements of that drawing ability could make it into a film if one had the skill to impose that graphic ability into the space of the production. But there was a distance then, now it is more immediate – where films have become so processed and constructed (the nature of editing is so fluid – like holding a pen) – the psychology of the animator, the FX person, the designer are now the dominate force at play in production and bleed into one master role.”
When I was a child I saw an exhibition of Jim Henson’s puppets at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. In a way, it has remained the most ideal exhibition I have ever seen. It housed objects created for his television shows and films – objects that had achieved life within his narrative universe. These were not made simply for the audio-visual medium to transmit them merely to be sold. They were not secondary pieces to the films’ whole, but existed both as totally complete objects and operated as puzzle pieces in his film medium’s grammar: they functioned as parts of his whole narrative universe both within a film and through the totality of his life work – his narrative – and thus warranted exhibition. Their value was achieved through a more complex, slower process. It possessed the same psychology like stumbling upon an Egyptian tomb. But most importantly, they were made to be props or puppets in films not “art objects” – the art-object was accomplished by the inclusive nature of his productions, combined with a life-work and the slow march of time changing the perception of how we as a collective view the medium.
I can say a great about Alien (1979) but I’ll keep it focused on the “transmutation of the art object”: I was always fascinated by how HR Giger’s paintings, when then realized as a movie costume or prop, lead him to create sculptures and furniture. Cinema – the phantom medium – made him realize his images could exist in space. As if his visions passed through the shadow universe and then out the other end – where in your freshly assulted mind space (false memories of the film’s make-believe world) you then can understand that your hand can grab your images – like closing your eyes (or being in the dark) and grabbing an object. That costume of some pre-history creature now standing like a fragile shell in glass – in a way made me think of Richard Serra’s rubber sculptures, not physically surviving time too well and then for the image to survive, the artist evolved to metal. And here there was the flirtation with film, but it didn’t exist as the doorway: his films were too exclusive and arid (perhaps reacting against the narrative commercial film world), where as the former production, was utterly inclusive on several fronts of production and design, thus allowing a “competition of parts” to leap frog mediums – and nurturing the Giger style through a transformation – aiding in it having perhaps the greater, far reaching visual influence.
Sketches for the video Alice in Wonderland (James Fotopoulos, 2009)
Through my own experience I felt the “film production” in its very nature was more “conceptual” than most “conceptual” art I was seeing in galleries. The conceptual was dead at this point, it was time to take the surviving remnants and move on into a neo-manerism.
The Thing (1982) somewhat refined these thoughts, although in a way devoid of the individual-artist-style per say, but more so as a result of the aging of the medium. I couldn’t see the props merely as props – but through a combination of time, distance and the growing archaic nature of the film’s techniques – the special effects became like sculptures to me. Although they were never intended to be, but through the strength of the movie’s unified whole, the mastery of its assembly (same with Alien) and the nature of time, made the film operate in my mind like a “cold-dead-unfolding-process” (I cannot watch films, especially the older they get, in any other way = they are like alien objects to me – only in the “parts,” the understanding of construction, can I find powerful emotional value or gain wisdom or metaphor – only through this technical world can I understand what it is to be “the other” as in what another’s life may be) – these creatures stood out of the piece by masterfully and equally operating as part of the whole and when thrust up again the medium’s decay with time, when the machinery became exposed – the tension of these two forces created something worthy “Object to be displayed.” As that of Giger’s image-style-path or Henson’s whole universe in his dedication and output.
A few years later I was asked to do an installation about female symbolism in Egyptian and Flemish art called The Mirror Mask (2005) for the Contour Biennial of Video Art in Mechelen, Belgium. I rejected the notion that the final mode of it has to be contingent upon the space alone. That unless photographed, that photograph became the object (like looking at shows of photographs of performances – the performance is not there, the photograph becomes the art-object, but yet whole shows will be focused on “performance” or “action” based on these objects. I do not believe performance is art – it is a shard of a tribal human process. Human beings have evolved to be able to take that primal somewhat religious human action and freeze it into a synthetic form. It is fine to go back to it – but I don’t feel it is fine to call it art). I created each piece within the space to stand independently, but still work as a whole and also have the ability to mutate to any space. In other words – abide by the space, try to make the work as its own singular piece, but compliment or link with the other pieces (videos or drawings), twist and conform to the space’s design and architecture but yet, most importantly, in the end stand on its own. So if this work moved into to a different space – the pieces can just be reworked to fit = but never lose their individual uniqueness.
Stills from the video The Mirror Mask (James Fotopoulos, 2005)
I wanted the singular object not unified by space through installation. In the end I felt that that final piece was more like an act of interior design not art (it was still too complicated in space), so I reedited all the video pieces of The Mirror Mask, into a singular feature length piece.
Ultimately all these ideas hinged upon my death – I wanted my work to be “democratic in death.” Each piece to carry its own weight that when I am dead can be simply handled as a body of work that all operates as life-narrative where there is no question about the singularity of any of the pieces – films, video tape, words on paper, drawings. Do with I what you may – but the threads connect and perhaps evolved into to a style (or styles) and ideas that reflect like a mirror, a life.
One never knows if any of what they make will amount to anything. The deal of doing this work is living in a state of unknowing = it can all amount to a waste of time. Which becomes the life-force of the act, but the act itself is not enough. The act must lead to the synthetic that stands separate from one’s decaying being and slowing actions. But at least the risk can be taken to not muddle it in a cloud of “Installation-tech-confusion.” In a way, shedding the tech-obsession that is simply re-hashing old conceptual ideas in a new package, and accept what is inherent in media production, that the markets are going to force changes upon you, which has nothing to do with art, and force a constant state of re-learning – and only when the technology become obsolete, in its death, does it become relevant to explore and attempt to elevate into a tool of art. I want to come to a work and simply by welcoming it, be challenged by the complexity of it construction at its very root use of the language – that direct, that intense, that simple. When creating, only when simple in the objective of the final piece could I unleash the epic sprawling vulgar chaos of the imagination. The advancement of technology brought me back to what was important in production – the basic, almost craft-like or homemade approach in writing and drawing – in particular, the “hand of the draftsman. A draftsman with words or images on paper and video.
James Fotopoulos, 2012
Below: Drawing for the video Alice in Wonderland (James Fotopoulos, 2010)
All images are courtesy of James Fotopoulos | © All rights reserved