By ANDREA BELL, SEPT. 2017
Jimi Billingsley has always been a wanderer, beginning with a childhood spent exploring the wilderness of the Catskills from his home in Woodstock, New York and continung with his first forays into street photography after moving to Williamsburg in 1998. The series Celluloid Divinations + Mountain Drive-In Collage are the result of an explorer’s spirit making its way in the world. The first of these works, Mountain Drive-In Collage, was the result of a chance encounter when Billingsley returned to a former haunt – an old drive-in movie theater, isolated and never heavily trafficked. On his return visit, Billingsley found the theater abandoned, but the projection room left open, exposing its store of old film trailers to years of weather and decay.
This kind of find can shift the trajectory of an artist’s exploration, and so it was with Billingsley. The artist began to search through the stream of cinematic imagery, looking for certain frames to recombine. The resulting works, now on display at Site57, oscillate between image-as-subject and image-as-form. Maintaining the gridded structure of Rauschenberg, Billingsley incorprates an understanding of color that looks to William Eggleston in order to emphasize the formal, rather than the fully representational, use of the mimetic images of photography. In selecting frames to extract from the reels, Billingsley was drawn to moments of high action – both sexual and violent – and consquently there is a trace of the darkness of Warhol in his excerptions, which range from car explosions to blazing fires, to passionate and fugitive kisses. Taking these frames from their original contexts, Billingsley re-inserts the stills into collaged compositions that play with the materiality of film itself, substituting the passage of cinematic or narrative time with the passage of physical time as manifest in the decay of the emulsion.
Billingsley’s relationship with time gives to his work a certain archaeological drive, beginning with the street photographer’s compulsion to uncover the meaningfully saturated moments within quotidian experience. In one of the artist’s earlier series, titled Transit Glyphs, Billingsley hauled a large-format camera onto the subway to record the nearly transparent tags scratched into the window glass. The past trace tends to return to the present moment. With the window itself as the site of inscription, the Transit Glyphs series continued Billingsley’s investigation of the relationships among painting, photography, flatness, gesture, and abstraction. As the city passes by cinematically behind the Transit Glyphs, their forms merge and then reemerge, playing with the non-mimetic potential of photography.
There is a natural human tendency to see series of images causally – to impose a narrative on separate frames in order to unify and to read them. This propensity has been at the basis of human representation since the earliest civilizations, and in the modern world it has given rise to filmic montage, a manifestation of the disjointed nature of modern experience. Billingsley interrogates this narrative impulse in the Mountain Drive-In Collages through his use of the patterns made from the degradation of the emulsion. In his work Film Collage 253, Billingsley furthers his exploration through his inclusion of the pieces of film that exist outside of the official narrative of the trailers themselves: namely, the frames that direct the projection operator, those that countdown to show time, those found at the beginning and ending of each reel marked off by their abstract and resolutely geometric patterns that distinguish such bits from the representational work of the movie itself.
It seems somehow appropriate that the decay of film, that quintessentially modern medium, would involve psychedelic patterns of saturated color, as we see in Mountain Drive-in 7. The passage of time and the play of chance are enacted on the surface of the frames. The patterns of decomposition eat their way through the film from the edges, and become repoussoir, or framing devices, which foreclose our view of the scene in its totality, and also reveal the remnants of the image. The patterns are topographical or even meteorological, the earth’s elements retracing their patterns on the decomposing imagery just as they do on the landscape or on any surface submitted to the weathering processes of time.
With the discovery of these long-forgotten film trailers, Billingsley found himself increasingly interested in the personal agency of the photographer – not in discovering and selecting scenes from the steady stream of lived experience, but rather in the (de)construction and (re)combination of images. While working in this way, cutting and collaging film, Billingsley noticed that the refuse from one of his projects had fallen in such a way on his light table. In a story right out of Surrealist mythology, Billingsley carefully transferred the scraps to a scanner and made what is essentially a photogram, whose lineage is locatable in the Bauhaus tradition of Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray.
This is photography as divination, a theme the artist explores in the second series featured in this exhibition, Celluloid Divinations. Again, he invokes the ability of the trace to speak across medium and context; again he focuses on the materiality of film and not only on its representational function. The act of divination, of seeing essential patterns which portend the future materialize out of the chaos of lived experience, suggests themes of control and of letting go, of constructing and of interpreting. Because film as a material bears the mark of its physical existence, reluctant to give up its curve after being unfurled, Billingsley’s Celluloid Divinations trace graceful, even musical arabesques across the surface of the image, engaging both artist and viewer in a dialectic between surface and space, between image and material.
Taken together, Celluloid Divinations + Mountain Drive-In Collage mark a turning point in Billingsley’s oeuvre, as his works become increasingly abstract in their exploration of, to use the artist’s words, “the mystery of the moment.” WM
Celluloid Divinations + Mountain Drive-In Collage will be on view at Site57 from September 7– October 1. The artist will be present at the opening reception on Thursday, September 7th from 6-9 pm. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Sunday 12 – 6:00 and by appointment.
Andrea Bell is an art historian, critic and writer. She received her PhD from NYU and has held fellowships in both Europe and the United States, including at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Drawing Institute. Based in New York City, Andrea teaches Art History and Criticism at Parsons School of Design
view all articles from this author