There’s a long tradition of cameraless filmmaking that takes in the likes of Man Ray, Norman McLaren, and Stan Brakhage, so LA-based video artist Jennifer West is in good company. Whether her male counterparts applied substances to the celluloid surface via headbanging remains fairly doubtful, but this performative approach manipulating celluloid film is partly what sets West apart.
The headbanging in question formed part of the making of her two Heavy Metal Sharks Calming films, inspired by an article by an Australian shark breeder who discovered that playing heavy metal music to Great Whites actually calmed them down. West took footage of the movie Jaws and literally applied heavy metal to it in the form of black dye. The performance came about as the means of application, for which West and another flung the dye from their hair onto the surface by headbanging along to heavy metal music.
Jennifer West, Heavy Metal Sharks Calming Jaws 2 Trailers - Jumping the Shark Film (faded pink super 16mm film prints TV spots of Jaws 2 -- treated with black fabric dye enriched with heavy metals: iron and zinc vitamins, celluloid grated with stone, whipped with hair headbanging, impressed with thumb and pink prints devil ears - headbanging by Monica Kogler and Jwest), 2011, 16mm film print transferred to hi definition video , 3 Mins 28 Secs.
A behind-the-scenes documentary would have been great, but there’s no hint at the mode of production in the work itself. What results is a beautifully distorted version of Jaws in which scenes are still recognizable but colours play across the screen and imbue the shark-based thriller with a rich abstract overlay.
Mascara Rorschach Film used blank celluloid onto which West drew abstract shapes with a mascara brush. Like her other works, the film was digitized in order to be projected in a loop during which, after a while, the abstract shapes start to morph into familiar forms as per their namesake. Her works are short, so even a few minutes in front of them results in hypnotic repetition.
Jennifer West, Mascara Warshak Film (35mm film leader brushed with mascara, intense black, deep purple/fascinating violet, azure blue, curling - mascara brushing by Monica Kogler and Jwest ), 2011, 35mm film transferred at 12 frames per second to Hi definition video, 3 Mins 36 Secs.
For part of her residency at MIT, West made I ♥ Neutrinos: You Can’t See Them but They are Everywhere using scientific footage of neutrino movement inked up by hand. As in the aforementioned works, the substances West uses are recognizable - acid highlighters and squeaky marker pens.
While her work is reminiscent of abstract expressionism, this use of familiar scenes from Jaws, highlighter colours or splodgey mascara marks imbues the work with familiarity. Her easily recognisable material references make these other-worldly works less alienating and more playful, more easy to engage with than they might at first seem.
-- Laura Bushell, an artist, curator, and writer living in London.
All images courtesy Vilma Gold