KELLY RICHARDSON AND BLOCKBUSTER REALISM
I love Kelly Richardson’s CG-heavy work, recently displayed by Pixel Palace at Whitley Bay’s Spanish City Dome and documented on Vimeo. It’s interesting to consider how you might frame her unique practice in relation to other disciplines. It lacks the reflexive bricolage aesthetic of digital art, the temporality of film and the materialism of paint. Yet it explores the language of digital painting and CG cinema with a focussed precision. It’s precisely the sort of work that this blog is about – work that exists in a kind of blind spot of contemporary art. Kudos to Pixel Palace for commissioning the work: the scale, glossiness and seamless detail make it the sort of screen-based art that people love to look at. It’s box office. It’s cinematic CG art.
Cinema is an intoxicating experience and CG films are the most intoxicating of all. But making them is demanding. Blockbuster CG hyperrealism is has a black hole effect: if detail is added here, it has to be added there. If we’ve already got hair being animated, we need leaves falling from the trees, clothes being caught by the wind and insects in the grass. The effect continues until there’s an outsourced army in China or India modelling rocks and pebbles and sand and dust and subatomic nothings. It’s a Borgesian conundrum. Kelly Richardson’s work stands out as gallery art that addresses the impossible seduction of blockbuster hyperreality using it’s own troublesome language.
Why does this seem so rare? Why don’t more artists play with this intoxicating substance? Well, few artists have the time, money or skill to explore this language. What’s more, artists are creative explorers, and making hyperreal CG is also not a naturally exploratory process – results are not immediate, and it’s hard to replicate the malleability of a painting in progress. CG is a laborious process that puts awkward technology in between you and the work. The render button gets hit only at the end of construction and it’s not so easy to step back from the canvas and squint. That said, it’s effect is hard to achieve by traditional means. It has impact. Meeting the Martian landscape of Mariner 9 is like being on the set of a film. Except it’s not green-screened, so you’re seeing more than the actors ever did. For a viewer to get the opportunity to approach the screen at the Spanish City Dome and be one step away from inhabiting this type of landscape is a real treat. To see this landscape without action or narrative is also a rare experience. I think the key word here is ‘sublime’. And that’s not sublime as in ‘darling, this Pinot Noir is sublime’….
Read a real definition here, if you like. If I were to attempt my own definition of the sublime it would be something like how feelings of awe edging on existential terror are brought about by both natural wonders (vast landscapes, extreme natural events) and man-made (towering skyscrapers, mass pilgrimages, the atom bomb, 9/11). So, part one of my pet theory (which it turns out is not far from the truth, see this interview) is that Kelly Richardson’s work associates ‘the sublime’ with blockbuster hyperrealism. The work highlights how the natural and industrial sublime have found the perfect home on the cinema screen, specifically within the genre of apocalyptic blockbuster that has emerged over the past decade. Again, the artist herself makes that connection and comes up with the interesting factoid: in the past 10 years,over 60 films have been made about the end of the world. That shows just how big our appetite for destruction is. It’s this appetite that leads to part two of my pet theory: there’s a strong correspondence between the apocalyptic blockbuster genre and our appetite for hellfire and brimstone in religious myth. Both appeal to the part of the human psyche that wants to be struck dumb, to envisage events that exceed human control, to confront ‘the end’ or imagine a new beginning. The end of days is a funny idea to want to hold on to. Why would something so terrible be so important to us? Why do we want to imagine it, to see it in graphic detail? And what would happen if we could ponder it without terror? If we could look it in the eye and understand it’s hold on us?
I think Kelly Richardson’s work does this. It explores the sublime of the apocalyptic blockbuster by detaching us from threat. It subtracts all the action. All the people. The story. She just leaves the stage and a trace of a story for the viewer to read into. To step into, almost. This technique has the effect of repurposing these cinematic landscapes for a personal, thoughtful experience. In that sense, it has a lot in common with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, in that her work explores the psychological or small-scale effects of cataclysmic, sublime, cosmic events. These two films react to the preponderance of apocalyptic films by playing down the end of the world, almost as if it’s a background event that heightens interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics. Not that Mariner 9 depicts an apocalyptic scenario. Some of Richardson’s other works come closer to doing this. But the corollary of this is that in removing threat from the sublime apocalypse we’re left with the opportunity to envisage and speculate about the future without fear. This takes us out of the endless here and now and gives us the opportunity to interpret the story of humanity from a wider, more revealing perspective.