On the filmic paintings of Judith Eisler
Cinema owes much to painting in both content and style. Deleuze refers to the film medium not in terms of “frames”- like paintings in a row - but as “photograms,” images that are fundamentally time bound and produce a state of consciousness in the viewer distinct from that produced by a painting. Judith Eisler seems to thwart this observation in her painterly practice. She inverts one of the fundamental developments of the 20th century – the movement from painting to film – and explores how the specific characteristics of film can be expressed in painting.
Susan Sontag – writing on film – posed the question: What is painting today, how is it perceived today, in a world of moving images? Peter Greenaway began his artistic career in painting, and described his reasons for moving to film with the fact that paintings don’t move, and that we therefore must embrace the notion of movement. In NYC, Eisler tries to capture a certain moment of urban city lights in New York, a scene we know so well from different movies or even from our own experiences rambling through the streets of a very big town. Using the dramatic sweep of the city lights and the impression of a long, operatic vibrato note, Eisler truly conveys the full sense of a single moment, combining movement, energy, and even sound. It seems to be made “en plein air”, bringing to mind the early modernist movement of Impressionism and in particular the paintings of Edgar Degas. The relatively small, thin, yet visible brushstrokes similar to Impressionist paintings, the open composition, the accurate depiction of light, all this accentuates the effects of the passage of time. Movement is a crucial element of human perception, but now with the experience of film we look at it differently than the Impressionists did. In the age of moving images painting can teach us a new visual code, altering and enlarging our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.
With Eisler, we get picture-in-picture arrangements looking like time-defying constructions. This is a style that’s principally about images. The two paintings, Romy I and Romy II, taken from two different film stills, show two moments in the acting of Romy Schneider. Eisler was interested in how the pattern of the fence merges with the head, fusing foreground and background. The technological interference that occurs in a photo of a film still is accomplished by painting several different layers, simulating not only the technical process but also alluding to the cultural fiction of the very image. The notion of movement finds its expression in painting two images from a sequence, a comment on the space or occurrence between the two paintings. This space is further emphasized by the smoky color, a color of fugitiveness and disappearance.
Another painting of Romy Schneider, Glint, is based on the notion of topography. While working primarily with faces, Eisler came across an article about the editing of the movie Bullitt, an American thriller directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen. The article claimed that the editor made the city of San Francisco an actual character in the film. This led Eisler to merge the genres of portrait and landscape and make them productive for each other. The painting NYC becomes a character as the painting Glint becomes a landscape. Glint is a painting of Romy’s face while she is reclining. Eisler is concerned with disrupting an otherwise monochromatic palette with light bouncing off small elements in the picture. She paints the indication of a smile and teeth and the features dissolve into a landscape. The phenomenon has a long history in the arts. Leonardo da Vinci stated in his notebook: “If you look at walls that are stained or made of different kinds of stones you can think you see in them certain picturesque views of mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of different shapes. You can also find in them battles and rapidly moving figures, strange faces and costumes, as well as an infinite number of things.” This creates an optical illusion containing double meanings, or better, it presents the viewer with the mental choice of two interpretations. Both of them are valid, but most of the time – depending on one’s perception – we only see one of them. Here, Eisler accomplishes a kind of deconstruction of the image.
The eyes of Marisa take this deconstruction of the image even further. We are stared at without any chance of avoidance. The face is situated not in the center of the frame but deferred a bit too far to the left. This irregularity is irritating but makes the image much more interesting. Her direct but off-kilter stare is a culmination of a 70’s horror movie look. We instantly know or have a feeling of the story behind this stare. Horror films are unsettling, designed to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience. They deal with our most primal nature and its fears: our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation, our revulsions, our terror of the unknown, our fear of death and dismemberment, loss of identity, or fear of sexuality. Greenaway argued that if film is to accommodate itself to the new millennium and become an art form in its own right, it must free itself from screenplays and formulate images independently. He believes that painting holds the key to crafting such a style, and he explores this in his films. Judith Eisler does the same thing in painting while having the filmic movement in mind.
In our glamour-studded times, film stars are the most photographed and admired people in the world. Eisler works intensively with these popular images or figures, but her intention is not only to quote celebrity or culturally recognizable icons. The actresses in the paintings represent aspects of our collective unconscious, while their likenesses are important as vehicles for transmitting an emotional resonance. In Liz, she uses minimal means to indicate the persona, Elizabeth Taylor. An eyebrow and an eyelash render her recognizable. Eisler needs to paint just a sliver of a profile and our personal anthology of images is clicked on. The presence seems to be about to shift; it is again a glimpse that attracts us, that makes her visible and that tells the story of before and after, the fate of the actress as well as the fate of the character she is impersonating. It also tells a lot about our own perception, our own fate and the fate of the people around us. The image turns into a mental object, which now provides most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person, and especially of a celebrity, is an interpretation. In this painting it becomes a handmade visual statement, a miniature of reality. The picture may distort, but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.
Our anthology of images is increasingly made of film stills. To collect images means to collect the world or our notion of the world. Fiction and reality intermingle and shape one’s view of his/her surroundings. It is the tension between painting and film, between static and moving images, and the blank surface as a medium that makes both arts accomplices. Judith Eisler brings the very quality of painting to the forefront and analyses the possibilities in an era that not long ago declared the death of painting. As we can see, painting is very much alive, energized by the new perceptions that came into being in the course of the development of the moving image.