There is hardly a more influential source for the cinematic representation of memory and perception than Akira Kurosawa’s (1910–1998) universally acknowledged “masterpiece” Rashomon (1950). Steeped in the symbolism of both its eleventh century setting (the waning era of Japan’s Imperial Court) and the radical non-linear narrative form it introduced, the film quickly became synonymous with the technique of telling a story through flashbacks from multiple and often contradictory points of view as a means of underscoring the relativity of truth and the slippery subjectivity of memory. Rashomon has managed to transcend its own status as a masterpiece of modernist filmmaking and has become ingrained into popular cultural consciousness by providing the plot device for countless films and television shows, as well as entering into common legal parlance. (The term “Rashomon effect” is frequently used to describe contradictory testimony in the recounting of events during criminal proceedings.)
Referenced to the point of cliché, a film full of melodramatic exchanges would not seem to be a promising subject for an artist working in a contemporary art world that traffics in the obsolete and places a premium on obscure references and recovering the seemingly lost. Yet in her exhibition “In a Grove,” Kirsten Everberg presents a series of four large-scale landscapes drawn from some of the most memorable forest settings of Kurosawa’s iconic film. Her paintings focus the viewer’s attention on the example par excellence of “subjective truth.” With each painting offering a slight formal variation on the others, Everberg holds the viewer in what at first glance may appear to be a type of visual tautology. Each of the four individual works cites an element from another canvas that in turn refers back to the film, maintaining a closed loop of references. After longer consideration, the visual structure, which can be thought of as a type of repetition of meaning, suggests that meaning resides not in an image’s fabrication, but rather in its dissemination.
Rashomon’s bearing on Everberg’s complex thinking about painting and spectatorship is paramount not only for this exhibition at Pomona College Museum of Art, but also throughout the work made by this Los Angeles-based artist over the past decade. “In a Grove” points to the impossibility of providing objective information through a notionally transparent manner of representation. It also references the film’s status as a modernist classic—familiar yet also “foreign.” Each of the four paintings’ titles refers to a character, or archetype, from Rashomon: Woodcutter, Ghost, Wife, and Bandit. But instead of figures, we are given only the ground—the wooded background of pivotal scenes from the film, which is set in the historic monuments of Ancient Nara near Nara City, Japan. As a formal motif, “In a Grove” concentrates on Kurosawa’s signature technique of penetrating dense forest shadows with flares of light that are caused by the camera shooting directly into the sun. Everberg’s paintings emphatically direct the viewer’s attention to Kurosawa’s manner of filming. This act of citation might have been taken up in the postmodernist terms of pastiche versus appropriation, if Everberg worked in a more resolutely reproductive or time-based medium. Yet while her chosen mode is patently painting, Everberg’s practice seems engaged in a decidedly intermedial experiment, in which her familiar subjects—made well known through film, photography, and television—are remediated through painting. Here, the medium of painting refers less to the expressive qualities of photographic pictorialism—a hallmark of that medium’s analogue history—and more to the digital process of rendering images by compiling elements from a variety of sources, models, or files. Ultimately, the works point to how images are framed, archived, and recalled by the viewer. The hazy edges and blurry lines of Everberg’s paintings and works on paper seem clearly focused on the mediation of images within the broader landscape of visual culture.
Everberg’s particular approach to painting can be thought of as a type of surface treatment. A meticulously prepped canvas laid out on a horizontal surface serves as a type of cognitive map that she fills with her own navigational signposts for directing liquid pigments. Eschewing brushes, she directly pours dozens of individually mixed colors in a measured process. Rather than appearing out of a quick succession of haphazard drips or any other type of indexical mark making, the final result is a shifting canvas of moving parts that slowly coagulates into a glistening whole. Everberg has honed her particular type of poured paint application and has consistently chosen to subject a stunning array of recognizable interiors, architectural structures, and outdoor settings to her own method of abstraction.
Everberg utilizes a tool more akin to Photoshop than painting: the act of erasure. Emptied of the figures that lived, built, financed, authored, sullied, or otherwise occupied these spaces at various moments in actual history or cultural mythology, Everberg allows the viewer to enter each scene made pristine. In addition to erasing the people, their personal effects are also eradicated, which allows the viewer to project himself or herself into the space, mimicking the psychology of glossy shelter magazines and films. In Everberg’s universe, however, the viewer may be invited to look, but he or she is subjected to a series of irrational angles, disorienting surfaces and unexpected palette choices. In the 2011 series Looking for Edendale, for example, “color stories” were flipped. The artist employed the neutral hues that are typically associated with interiors (mass-market favorites enlivened with decorator names like Swiss mocha, muslin, and piedmont gray) in the crafting of outdoor settings, including rice paddies, manicured lawns, and perfectly tousled urban foliage. The darker ochre tones, ruddy browns, and sky blues more often connected to landscape scenes were used to render indoor domestic spaces.
Everberg’s individual paintings do not yield a one-to-one relationship with their sources. Information lifted from news clippings, film and videos, magazines, screen grabs, history books, and other collections of visual material that she amasses for each project are sometimes alluded to in the titles, but exact stills or photographs are rarely, if ever, pictured or reproduced by the artist. The paintings’ final compositions derive from a more synthetic approach. Rather than mimicry, Everberg seems invested in a process of filtering that is similar to how a piece of software removes unwanted details, text, or spaces and/or allows a work to be formatted for use in another application. The blue green, gray tonalities and spots of yellow layered within the works that comprise “In a Grove,” for example, belie the black-and-white film source and point instead to the four-color process used to render richer black-and-white images in print form.
Everberg’s subjects are less the actual buildings or locales and more the ways in which these cultural landmarks, icons, or markers have entered the public imagination. Her paintings thus equalize the popular and the rarified. Case in point, as part of the Looking for Edendale series she created a suite of seventy-two-by-sixty-inch paintings that presented four iconic shots of the steel staircases that lace the atrium of Los Angeles’s Bradbury building. The Bradbury’s famous interior has attained a state of media ubiquity through countless reproductions of the sci-fi noir mash up, Blade Runner, television cop dramas, photographic portfolios, advertising campaigns, and even as video and computer game backdrops. Everberg’s deceptive titles—Los Angles 2015; Military Hospital, Great Britain; Hotel Royale, China; Philips Import/Export—do little to shake the viewer’s sense of déjà vu. More than the titles, her intriguing handmade surface effects point viewers toward a pressing question about a world created from blue screens and Photoshop apps. What are the critical stakes for painting as an arguably outmoded means of commenting on today’s digitally driven, real-time culture?
Key to Everberg’s critical insistence on painting’s relevancy is the persistent suspicion that the structure of culture—specifically visual culture—has been irrevocably transformed. By keeping the references (art historical, architectural, filmic, and photographic) loosely floating in the ether that surrounds her canvases, Everberg’s practice challenges the tendency to consider work produced with digital formats or technologies the best means of exploring our relationships to images and the cultural shift toward more seamless forms of media. By presenting a veritable array of contextual scenes, which can be thought of as a procession of unstable images, each painting diligently advocates for a sense of the hypothetical. To this end, Everberg’s work should not be taken as a defense of analogue image-making in an increasingly digital world, but rather a sharp and well-tuned contribution to the debates about the status of the image and, more urgently, the efficacy of single, silent images in the current moment, which is characterized by noisy streams, torrents, or floods.
This distinction generates a critical position for the works overall, which can be characterized as hinging on a condensation point. Suggesting the very process of accumulation, condensation in this case is the antonym of absorption—the trait most associated with media culture in which information is taken in and processed. Here, condensation refers to the transitional nature of Everberg’s paintings as they move from one state to another over time. Paint starts as a liquid, dense and viscose, but fluid and unstable nonetheless. At a certain point, the work reaches its crux, the maximum volume it will hold both materially and conceptually.
SKIMMING THE SURFACE
In almost any context, superficiality is derided. Staying on the surface, however, is the very precondition for the production and reading of images. Focusing our attention on surface qualities, Everberg goes against the grain. Distinct from painting’s categorical insistence on uniqueness, Everberg’s works are almost always executed and exhibited in a set or series, as demonstrated by the “In a Grove” works at Pomona. Here, and in the 2008 series My Name is Ivan (After Tarkovsky), the individual paintings can be read sequentially not unlike the very film stills they reference. Viewers will often follow one element of a work into another, thereby producing a temporary spatial and contextual correlation between the paintings. This type of surface effect is most successful when Everberg highlights the conventions of viewing. For example, utilizing the sequencing techniques used in filmmaking, time and distances are compressed and a location is confirmed in a single establishing shot. One can fast forward or reverse at will and return to an element of the image already seen in another work. Likewise, building facades and interiors in earlier series do not always match up. For instance, the LA Mill series (2008), fully exploits the contrived fanciness of a Silver Lake coffee shop so that the restaurant’s sleek, rectangular geometry (windows, tables, floor, and ceiling) is interrupted by the bouncing light that prevents the viewer from knowing whether he or she is outside looking in or inside looking out, reflecting the strange logic that fuels industry and art alike.
Emphasizing not what is seen but how it is seen, or taken in, remains critical to Everberg’s practice as she investigates the effects—the specific viewing conditions—of various media. If the “In a Grove” paintings point toward the negotiation of memory within film, an earlier set of works evinces Everberg’s interest in how experience is mediated through television and photography. In 2004, Everberg exhibited a series of paintings inspired by the color-coordinated rooms of the White House, which, in the incisive words of art historian Jenni Sorkin, “recreate the experience of 1960s color-saturated television.”* Everberg’s now-signature painting technique made the crystal chandeliers, objet d’art, and rich furnishings famously selected by Jackie Kennedy appear as luminous as they would have looked in 1962 to the 56 million viewers glued to their television sets, watching the First Lady give a televised tour of the redecorated Red, Blue, and Green Rooms and the State Dining Room. Television would also be the lens through which Americans collectively experienced the assassination of her husband, in some of the most indelible and enduring images that defined the event.
If Camelot and its subsequent unraveling defined one aspect of America’s postwar identity, another strain could be found in the representations of gleaming swimming pools, cloudless skies, and post-and-beam construction that signified a changing middle-class lifestyle in Southern California. Pictures of homes with floor-to-ceiling glass and low-slung furniture designed for lounging would embolden the rhetoric of the American dream for a post-Kennedy generation. In a series of works with the titles Living Room, Pool, and #22 (all 2011), Everberg positions the viewer at the nexus of this moment’s confluence of design, architecture, and fantasy. In particular, #22 needs no further elucidation for architectural aficionados, as those numerals instantly conjure Pierre Koening’s contribution to Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study program. Initiated in 1945 to encourage innovative architectural solutions, the magazine’s editor, John Entenza, asked architects to submit models for homes that reflected the new materials and social conditions of the modern world. Everberg’s #22 foregrounds the notion of reproducibility—both a stated fundamental criteria for the Case Study program (all submissions had to be “capable of duplication”) as well an unintended side effect of the compact structure’s sheer photogenicism. Since the house’s construction in 1960, it has regularly acted as a setting for feature films and as a backdrop to showcase furniture and fashion. The structure’s glass walls have appeared in dozens of advertisements, both as an actual location and as the inspiration for countless other manufactured sets that want to evoke midcentury glamour in one shot. And the image that established this connection and launched an endless number of modernist allegories is Julius Shulman’s iconic 1960 photograph, in which he expertly framed #22 so it seems to float above Los Angeles’ infamous smog layer. Everberg’s palette of flattened whites, grays, and beiges mutes the more luxurious scenes often staged within the home’s fairly modest conditions and proportions.
As a series of unique works that remediate other, more mass forms of media, Everberg’s paintings reflect the economic and social conventions of circulation and exchange that govern both objects and images in a crowded market. By putting everything on the surface, the artist points to an ethical chasm between the timelessness of image culture and the linear world of history, where things fade and wear down over time. The surface effects in Everberg’s paintings are alluring because, like all images that compete for our time and attention, they not only catch the eye, but hold it in a tight grip. Lurid or scintillating, the most successful images are the ones that we have to actively pull ourselves away from. This is the power that fuels escapist fantasies and armchair travel. Everberg’s works do not offer a counter model. In fact, with their impossible angles and often-indeterminate layouts, Everberg’s paintings exploit the contemporary conditions of manufactured reality. In doing so, the artist focuses on the diffusion of media technology and the phenomenon of mediation itself—shifting viewing into spectating. This quality tends to be associated with film (to heightened affect in Rashomon), photography, the televisual, or even the Internet, but not painting. Everberg simply and powerfully shows us this process.
* See Jenni Sorkin’s review “Kirsten Everberg 1301PE Gallery, Los Angeles, USA” in Frieze Magazine 84 (June–August 2004), https://frieze.com/article/kirsten-everberg.