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Al Jarnow: Navigations through Time and Light

Architecture (Numero Group)

Flatpack Festival

23-27 March 2010, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

American artist Al Jarnow started out as something of an accidental animator. Obsessed with capturing light, Jarnow initially created paintings. Like David Hockney’s photographic collages, Jarnow’s works laid out their subjects through squares of colour. Painted street scenes, architectural structures and landscapes were used to illustrate the motion of time, the changing of light and its transformative powers. Buildings were chosen as vessels; it was light that was the subject. Film, with its flickering frames of light and intrinsically temporal nature, was a natural progression. There was more potential for recording and exploring transience. He was also led towards the medium by his acquaintances and the environment of his city: the artistically free and exciting New York of the 1970s. Film Forum, Anthology and the Collective of Living Cinema provided unique platforms for experimentation. And Jarnow was a natural experimenter.

His first attempt at filmmaking – a psychedelic animation of Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ – was for a NYU student film, produced by friend Dan Weiss, with drawings by his wife, Jill Jarnow. By necessity he learnt on the project; and by not knowing the medium, he was able to reinvent, challenge and improvise. Over the course of his career, he has played around with Xerox machines, he has produced stop-motion animations with filing cards and, in recent times, he has ‘fallen head over heels into the computer screen’, investigating the possibility of software-generated sequences without beginnings, middles and ends.

There is an elegant precision to Jarnow’s films. His 70s filing-card films stylishly play with geometric patterns. Piles of paper leap up and down mail-slots or shuffle like packs of cards, all the time revealing rotating architectural hand-drawn cubes. As the numbered sheets of paper flip before your eyes, your mind races to discover how it is done before duly giving in to the hypnotic rhythm, counted out on Mozart-written harpsichord beats. Autosong (1976), inspired by his wife’s blue Volkswagen car, is a labyrinthine journey of bends, bridges and hills knotting into abstract tubes and pipes set to field recordings of revving engines. Jarnow looked to the background scenery of old cartoons, rather than the racing hero.

Indeed, Jarnow presents humans as small specks, insignificant in the lifespan of the earth. In the two-minute short Cosmic Clock (1979), an impassive young male figure watches from a hillside as one billion years flash before his eyes. A strange time-lapse masterpiece unfolds as successive space-age cities rise and fall, water levels surge and plummet and ice ages sweep over the land. Architecture (1980) takes a different approach, using brightly painted toy blocks to create a stop-motion representation of urbanisation. Model animals weave in and out as buildings emerge, disintegrate and rocket up skywards. The elaborate city landscape sees the animals disappear as cars move in.

As well as charting the progression of human beings against the backdrop of the natural world, Jarnow also displays a desire to record time as it relates to an individual’s life. Jesse: The First Year (1979) is a playful sequence of photographs showing Jarnow’s new-born son over the course of 12 months, charting changes and growth during a period when the passage of time is sharply apparent. Similar in its personal approach, Celestial Navigation (1984) is one of Jarnow’s most fulfilled experiments. The 15-minute film records light passing through Jarnow’s Long Island studio from 20 March 1982 until 20 March 1983. As blocks of sunlight fall from the windows against whitewashed walls, Jarnow obsessively traces their movement across mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, months. He creates grids, photographic prints and a model of the studio, surrounded by a shining light bulb. He travels to Stonehenge for the summer equinox and produces a map of the landmark. There is a wonderful zoetrope-like sequence as the camera swirls around the stones, sun shining through and shadows cast. The effect of Celestial Navigation is like a fantastically talented jazz trumpeter stepping up to improvise, surrounded by silence as the rest of the band dies away. It is Jarnow’s personal philosophical riff on time and light.

Given the cerebral aspect of his works, it comes as a surprise that Jarnow also worked on many television commissions, including sequences for the mighty children’s television series Sesame Street. Generations of children remember his film, Yak (1970), an educational short about the letter ‘Y’. This commercial work paid for experimentations in the studio while Jarnow has described his personal work as acting like a laboratory for his commissions. And what a fantastic laboratory his Long Island attic became. Self-effacing in interview, Jarnow depicts his filmmaking as starting off on a very personal basis (‘my wife was an audience, my friends were an audience’). The uniqueness of Jarnow’s work rests heavily on its personal quality. Jarnow is an artist driven by an enviable desire to endlessly chase ideas, taking new perspectives and trying out all approaches.

The Al Jarnow programme ‘Celestial Navigations’ screened on Sunday 27 March at Ikon Eastside, Birmingham, as part of the Flatpack Festival.

Eleanor McKeown

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