[ By Jill Newman ] [ Photos by Carlyn Aguilar ]
Currently on view at the Fellows of Contemporary Art, Site as Symbol brings together the work of seven artists who utilize sites in and around Los Angeles as symbols for force, energy or progress, explored as both destructive and imaginative. Here, legendary filmmaker and artist Pat O'Neill debuted his video "Thornhill Spring in Garfield Fall" and sculpture "Thots of July," both 2011. In each work, O'Neill transforms his subjects through context and material play, ushering the viewer into contemplation through his meditative approach.
The curators, Survey West Collaborative, further push connections between the city and metaphor by hosting site-specific events in tandem with the exhibition. The first of which, Evening of Projections, is a celebration of Pat O'Neill's work fittingly located at Lookout Mountain, his Pasadena studio. Videos "Ojo Caliente" (2011), "Thornhill Spring in Garfield Fall" (2011), and "Trouble in the Image" (1996) were each screened.
O'Neill moved to Pasadena in 2002, and began sculpting wooden cones, including "Thots of July," from the acacia trees cleared to erect his studio. The number of cones increased steadily, and in constructing a rationale for the presence of so many similar objects, he reached for a half-remembered tale. In the early 1970's, a team of anthropologists had come across a huge scattering of unexplained objects "consisted of a compound that had no explanation and no precedent in our experience... it didn't seem to be made of anything found on this planet." In 2010, O'Neill created a tiny replica in 1/87 scale of the Ojo Caliente site as he imagined it might have appeared when occupied. He lit the replica with miniscule lamps and filmed it using a tiny digital camera mounted in an imaginary helicopter. In lieu of human occupation, only a brief glimpse of a red-hot glowing cone is seen moving in the video, as if under its own power. Perhaps this video reveals a prototypical artist's studio at the coming century- a ruin in a wasteland where the artifacts of an alien or inexplicable culture are produced. O'Neill's intricate model and many of his 'cone' sculptures were also on view.
"Thornhill Spring in Garfield Fall" is a conversation between two filmmakers, one living and the other deceased. Richard Matthews began filming out the window of his Kansas studio in 1976, recording the passing of days and seasons. O'Neill shot similar footage outside his own studio over the course of fifteen days and collaged the two recordings. Adding to the action, O'Neill inserts footage of a paper manikin the size of a small child; genderless, headless and limbless, yet capable of motion about its own axis. This child-manikin rolls and twitches spasmodically, as if in pain or ecstasy. As this dance unfolds, small, brightly colored symbols appear in the lower right corner: a paint bucket, book, and pistol. These objects contain colors drained from the picture and shift across the screen- as if to signal a cycle of states of mind.
O'Neill's seminal film "Trouble in the Image" is a gathering of visual and auditory ideas accumulated over a seventeen-year period. The film has no continuing characters, but is made up of dozens of scenes dislodged from other contexts, often interrupted by the chopping, shredding, or flattening of special effects technology. All is not lost, however, as the reward is found within complex and intricate formal relationships, where subject matter is almost irrelevant. In this way, O'Neill strips the image of original meaning or reference, using it to create ideas and associations unrelated to the images themselves, illustrating how film can be an art form independent of storytelling.
Pat O'Neill has been deeply involved in Los Angeles culture since the late 1960's. A founding father of the city's avant-garde film scene, an influential professor at CalArts, and an optical effects pioneer. Several of his avant-garde films are considered classics. For example, "Water and Power" was the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner in 1990 and chosen for the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2008. He had recent retrospectives at the Tate Modern, the Whitney Museum, and the Centre Pompidou. He received the Maya Daren Award from AFI and the Persistence of Vision Award from the San Francisco Film Festival along with grants from the Guggenheim and the Rockefeller foundations. In 2004-06, forty years of his work in film, drawing, sculpture, printmaking and photography was the subject of two major exhibitions, one at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the other at Cornerhouse in Manchester, England. In 2008, at Rosamund Felsen's Gallery (Santa Monica, CA), he displayed his first prototypes for 3-D sculptural composites in an installation setting.