R.J. Ward: Apocalypse A-Go-Go
The recent video works of RJ Ward use different cinematic tropes as their raw working material, which is than transposed into various forms of real-time digital abstraction. Often alluding to lost horizons, targets and grids, Ward's images appear to be in dialogue with painting and the moving image in equal measure. Stretched and contorted, Ward's anthropomorphic pallet issues from slowly twisting and voided referents while his compositional choices make a direct allusion to the distortion of space and time. High key colors emerge in a seemingly spontaneously manner from so many nondescript scenes of iconic film sequences, often giving us the feeling of images run at half or quarter speed. Playing with the erasure of so many itinerant plot points, Ward's video work is both a détourned gesture about absorption-as-distortion as well as a self-referential play of memes that have trafficked in the world of fine art and avant-garde cinema over the course of the last century.
Both entrancing and mesmerizing, Ward's interventions harken back to the experimental work done in the late 60s and early 70s which relied on manipulating celluloid images frame by frame. Only Ward has updated this approach to match the constraints of the digital age, making his remediated montages into something of a hyper-self-reflexive loop. When we watch Ward's video works, we are, in a sense, watching a recursive history of formalism and film given over to us through so many psychedelic effects. And, it is not lost on today's abstract painters, that the blur itself, has become a dominant motif in much of contemporary paintings since Richter, or that the course of the twentieth century has been one of increasing vertigo rather than balance and order. Which is to say, it is not only the human world of finance and politics that has become increasingly abstract, but that all life on earth now contends for its place to exist in and amongst the subsumption of capitalist imperatives. But it is not just the theme of abstract motives or the acceleration of disasters that defines Ward's compositional sense but rather, his embrace of op- effects, hard edge lines, and day-glow colors that serve to provide an inerrant sense of visual punctuation to his artistic projects.
But what does Ward's recycled cinema tell us about our relationship to re-appropriation, détournement, sampling, remixing and revisiting famous works of historical measure? What does the nearly synaesthetic experience provided by his projects tell us about the twists and turns of narrative constructs in the greater culture of contemporary fine art and film production? What did the politics of liberation and revolution that stretched from French New Wave film to the present, tell us about the matrix of cinematic and post-painterly art practices we find ourselves surrounded by today? And most importantly, is Ward's work properly post-historical inasmuch as it is a form of digital painting or a psycho-geography of filmic sequences that seem to run Godard in reverse, like unearthing what Freud called so many lost or displaced screen memories? And if so, is Ward's archival impulse, or rather, his impulsive archival interventions, caught up in a dialectics of the repressed and the irrepressible, the auteur and the artist as author, the single still frame and the reversibility of the real-time image?
Undoubtably, Ward's work is all of these in smaller and greater measure. His is a trompe l'oeil effect based on capturing the bravura and cinematic scale of high modernism as so many images of transit, transposition and superimposition. It is, what the art critic and film theorist Richard Dienst would have called a 'still life in real time', an ipso-facto replay of the image machine that not only went on producing pictures because the spectacle of it all had become a value unto itself, but also because the ineluctable modalities of montage became the ground of valuation in the art world and mass commerce alike. And, this idea of self-reflexivity, or of value as a system of relational signifiers, has only become that much more free-floating in the era of hyper-capital.
This next to that, one moment against another, one artist overcoming the cult status of a deified director, as well as the never ending debates about medium specificity and post-studio production... all of this has something to do with the 'production value' of art as a montage of sorts that is forever split between the rear and front-garde, in both industry and the industrialized practices of producing fine art. In other words, Ward is giving us so many allegories about the nature of avant-garde practice rolled into divisionist segments, targeted projections, abstract gestures, graphic zips, essentialist geometries and contorted compositions, such that we begin to lose any stable sense of pictorial perspective. And this, in a sense, is the very condition we are all confronted with in the age of remediation, where we no longer think of the readymade as an original thing to be manipulated but as an object of previously encoded meanings and infinitely degradable data transfer. Unlike film and the photograph, which carried the trace of the real within an analogue world, the digital age is a period of unrestricted reproducibility. As such, we are all living in an era of reproducible referents without end, where works such as Ward's play with transference not just as a type of pictorial technique but also as a manifestation of counter-transference that offers us another set of projections for analysis.
In this way, Ward's contribution to the contemporary moment is to have given us a fusion of figure and ground, of style and content, and dare I say, of a kind of jouissance in seeing the cinematic image flattened out and stretched to the very limits of recognition, ultimately working two dimensions of experience against each other in a dazzling display of chromatic theatrics. Part special effects, part visual paradox, Ward wants to create a riddle about presence and place that the viewer has to unfold within the temporal constraints of what is offered up as a sample, a slice, a cut and even a delicacy of cinema vérité or what might be more aptly referred to as cinema variable. Of course, such a selection and condensation of experience leaves us with more than a few questions about the destiny of the mediated image. And perhaps, that is the contemporary purchase of Ward's works, which are engaged as much with affective pleasures as they are warped forms and reconfigured spaces. Ward's pieces are, after all, a meditation of sorts on inhabiting space, both in avant-garde practice and in the greater world of the abstract imaginary.
Or rather, we could say that his most recent works are a means of charting the abstract imaginary of artistic production that was co-extensive with the rise of the society of spectacle and which still holds sway over our culture today as we enter a period of total absorption, scripted spaces and immersive aesthetics. Only Ward's use of images from a film icon like Godard begs the question of how we can get back to the real in an era of inverted perceptions, where virtual participation has begun to supersede corporeal relations, where interactions have been replaced by transactions and where meeting face to face is being commuted into interfacing. Here, Ward's images present us with an allegory of dissonant registers, of time-lapse and looping effects gone awry, and of the power of the image as it tarries between disintegrative and representational affects. In other words, Ward's works are a kind of commentary on Western culture as it turns to face it own image in the early twenty-first century, a century that has to contend with dissociative affects as much as it does integrative editing, and where the pictures we are left with may be the measure not only of our time, but of how time was constructed in the aesthetic dimension of art discourse that was once known as avant-garde art practice.
Bio: RJ Ward received a BA in Film/TV from UCLA and an MFA in Studio Art from UC Irvine. He’s a synaesthetic researcher and the founder of film/sound collective Barbwire Cloud. He has worked as a screenwriter at various film studios and TV networks, as a musician/composer and an FM radio DJ. He’s shown his video and sound works at the Room Gallery, LA County Museum of Art, Laguna Beach Museum, Art Ark and many other venues.