View from a Time Machine
Jen Omaitz’ Hypnotica at e. gordon gallery
Right now is all there is, that isn’t daydream or history. The chief value of ambitious art is
that it chooses to accept the most impossible of missions: to capture the energy-packed
essence of the present moment. Grabbing a quark by its shorthairs couldn’t be any
harder, but somehow, sometimes it happens. And art that tells us something true about
who we are – how we look, what we see, how we feel about ourselves -- gives us a place
we can go back to, a place for identity to dance.
Jen Omaitz paints streaks of colored light, speeding through the darkness. A better
metaphor not just for our own high-tech culture, but for life itself, would be hard to find.
The works, executed in glistening oil paint on canvas, combine two very different kinds of
experience, and it’s the potency of the mix that gives rise to their near-convulsive vigor.
Partly her speeding, twisting, gyrating lines and scrapes and swooshes are about paint
and the history of abstract painting. And partly they’re about international electro house
music, about raves and sensuality, plus a kind of active meditation and an experience of
Omaitz, who obtained her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2002, is a canny
contemporary painter, versed in postmodernist concerns and intrigued by the two-step
that photography and painting perform as they vie for significance within the limited sphere
of fine arts culture.. The German maestro Gerhardt Richter is the impresario of this sort of
performance, and Omaitz’ work takes some cues from his decades-long explorations. Her
paintings, too, are visually precise renditions of photographs – but with a difference.
Rather than examining nuances of how we perceive quotidian things, Omaitz proposes a
special-case ontology; her work is about being there, and being on fire.
First and last, the medium and small-sized paintings on view at her show Hypnotica are
abstractions. The artist’s handling of paint catches the underlying snap and crackle of
motion, subtracting bodies as it distills a vision that is also remarkably evocative of other
senses, especially hearing and touch. This characteristically synesthetic effect is perhaps
due to the care with which Omaitz transcribes her original source photos into paint, and to
the rapid fire club lighting that is on her mind.
Hypnotica is also the name of a famous album by euro house / electroclash DJ Benny
Benassi, and the club scene is the visual/emotional frame of reference for Omaitz’
paintings in general. But, though they have everything to do with the intensity and ecstasy
(natural and/or drug-induced) of that late night world in, say, London or Manchester, the
photos on which they’re based record the lights of Cleveland and its suburbs during long
midnight drives with her husband. In an effort to capture the chronological dislocation
typical of euphoria, Omaitz crunches and reverses time in these multiple-exposure
photographs. After rewinding the film she returns to the beginning of the roll frame by
frame, leaving the lens open for long seconds as the moving or still lights of the street are
impressed on the film.
“It’s like a view out the side of a time machine, you know,” she says, and certainly E=MC²
would be the formula of choice to describe these paintings. When she was in school at CIA
she worked for three years in the Cinematheque and fell in love with the work of avant-
garde filmmakers, in particular the layered, scratched and painted filmic universe of the
late, great Stan Brakhage. Probably that influence lingers most visibly in the show’s
centerpiece, also titled Hypnotica. Composed of twenty-five eleven inch-square canvases
hung in a grid formation, the painting is practically feature-length. The spaces between its
component parts is like syncopation, briefly interrupting the flow of a huge, roughly square
vision of light and line that almost leaps off the wall into real space. Containing rough,
raised passages abrading an overall high polish, Hypnotica has the presence of a major
figurative work, but composed entirely of random dashes and squiggles, flashes and
swirls. All dimensions seem up for grabs, and especially time, suspended for the duration
of a neon-filliped Big Bang.
Two of the most recent paintings in the show titled Release and Electro Pulse, are also
among the strongest. The background in both works is a deep umber, a dark brown that
evokes the warmth of a summer night and the recesses of interior space. In Release,
about two thirds of the way up the canvas, a sudden two inch-wide trail fires across.
Almost white on the left, it gradually pulses apart, fading to a magenta-toned pink, jerking
and dragging like a DJ’s scratching and cross-fading. But there’s nothing much to drag
against. Omaitz’ night is as smooth as lip gloss. Beneath the pink a cloud of fire travels
through the room, if room it is, and beyond that at the bottom of the work solemn umbers
continue like a slow drumbeat, dotted and stroked by pale greens and yellows and a furry
mist of warm blood red. Inscribed over all this, signing this as a dancer signs the darkness
with her limbs, a wildly gesticulating tangle of white-yellow lines jumps upward through all
three levels of the painting, reaching for an unseen ceiling.
Electro Pulse turns the fast electric drift of sounding paint on its side, showing an almost
vertical current of lavender and gray streaming upward, lined and braced by ribbons of
light blue. Nervous yellow lines trail down like cracks in the world.
Omaitz’ paintings succeed in capturing not only the intimate, quasi-revelatory world of
clubs and DJ’s, but a wider sense of the modern urban night. Driving at breakneck speed
they report on quickly evolving conditions of the body and soul, as technology transforms
everyday life into a dance floor for raw energy.
[Free Times 10/4/06]