SECCA’s ‘Psychedelic ’ cowboys

by Keith Barber

The Rorschach blot-like images that morph into silhouettes of rifles, horses and cowboys in Jeremy Blake’s “Winchester,” the first of three short films in the artist’s Winchester Trilogy, currently being exhibited at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, displays the artist’s masterful use of blending different mediums to create an unforgettable experience. The combination of 8mm film footage, static 16mm shots of old photographs and hundreds of digitally retouched ink drawings tells the dark tale of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif. with remarkable effect. Like an alchemist, Blake finds the perfect proportions of art forms to the macabre story of Sarah Winchester, widow of the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, and the house she constructed over the course of 38 years. Blake’s dreamy landscapes and eye-popping color, blended with his artistic manipulation of computergenerated forms are reminiscent of those he used in animations for the movie Punch-Drunk Love and his Sea Change album cover design for Beck. “Winchester” casts a spell over its audience, and understanding the fascinating back story of how Sarah Winchester came to build a house with 160 rooms, 467 doorways and more than 1,200 windows after the premature death of both her child and her husband. We have to look no further than Blake’s own writings about his film trilogy, which runs at SECCA from Nov. 12-Dec. 7, to understand his inspiration for “Winchester.” Blake explains that Sarah Winchester, widow of the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, after losing both her child and husband prematurely concluded that the angry spirits of those struck down by her family’s guns had placed a curse on her. An advisor agreed and suggested she build an enormously large house to provide ample space for good spirits and to ward off evil ones with the sounds of constant hammering and sawing. Sarah Winchester also looked to accommodate the spirits of the undead with staircases leading to nowhere, doorways leading out into open air several stories above ground and miles of darkened hallways for the spirits to roam. Viewing the film in SECCA’s Overlook Gallery, one deduces that “Winchester” would have undoubtedly found a most receptive audience during the countless Halloween celebrations in late October. As it stands, Winchester Trilogy is part of a series entitled, Psychedelic, which began on Sept. 12 and runs through Jan. 4. The series attempts to revisit the visionary history of the psychedelic experience, and the contemporary application of that model by four renowned artists. The series opened with four short films by Louis Cameron, followed by three short films by Shahzia Sikander. It was Sikander’s films on display at SECCA last month during Halloween, but a good ghost story is timeless, especially one that is communicated as effectively and creatively as “Winchester.” Curator Steven M. Matijicio personally wrote all the exhibit boards for SECCA’s exhibition of more than 40 photographs by Dutch artist Erwin Olaf. The series entitled Grief perhaps best encapsulates Olaf’s innovative photographic technique. Olaf builds sets, or worlds, like one would for a theater production or Hollywood movie. He then places models in those elaborate sets and begins shooting. Grief, inspired by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., depicts models that appear as if they are sitting on a Hollywood set of a 1960s-era film, with appropriate hair, makeup and wardrobe. It is the body and language and emotions of the models that tell the story even without the eloquent exhibit board composed by Mr. Matijicio. The hyper-realistic nature of Olaf’s photographs has drawn comparisons to Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. Matijicio has done a stellar job selecting a broad range of Olaf’s work to show his wide range of influences, from the Dutch masters to science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition also includes three short films by Olaf, including one that builds on the artist’s Le Dernier Cri series, which features beautiful models wearing strange futuristic appliances on their faces. Olaf’s Gay Couples series perhaps best underscores his work’s overarching theme, which is the American dream is not yet realized. Matijicio, with his selection of works by Blakely and Olaf, has realized an intoxicating blending of art forms, which yield a powerful experience for all who visit SECCA in the coming days and weeks.

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The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem iscurrently featuring the work of Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf. Theexhibition, which runs through Jan. 4, contains more than 40 of Olaf’sphotographs including a “Gay Couples” series commissioned by the NewYork Times.