34-118.5: A Brief History of Imaging Technology
Julian Whatley’s California landscapes are familiar, even commonplace, yet somehow alien. The places are real, but feel unreal, and read like entries in a geological catalog from the distant future: equal parts clinical and elegiac. Stylistically, the paintings are mash-ups of Miyazaki, Magritte, and American Tonalism. While the artworks fit the ‘landscape’ pigeonhole, the landscape (the object) only provides a context for his interrogation of perception (the subject). And what scant evidence his landscapes show of our human existence, reminds us that our presence here occurred recently, is less central than we might believe, and is tenuous.
All of Whatley’s landscapes and seascapes are real places with fixed coordinates. None are imagined. 34-118.5 is a seascape, captured serially over the course of a calendar year, that corresponds to a precise GPS location (34.03259°N, 118.53294°W). The photographs and paintings in this series, made almost daily from the exact same vantage point overlooking Santa Monica Bay, take their titles from an instance of space/time.
Whatley’s oeuvre exists at the nexus of reality and our quest to apprehend reality: a quest both scientific and existential. Towards this, a layer to his artwork is its peculiar interrogation of image-making technology–most evident in his multi-panel works. Many place photographic prints beside similarly rendered oil paintings of the same subject. They are technical juxtapositions, but much more: they underscore the role of different imaging technologies as tools for perception, contrast the expressive properties of these technologies, and point to humankind’s use–even dependence on–image-making technologies to make sense of, mold, personalize, and create reality. Image capture is re-imagined as a Quixotic ‘Grail Quest.’ Towards this we continually ‘improve’ our methods and technologies around image capture, at some unconscious level believing we will finally reveal existence as it truly is. But we never get there, which in turn leads to a relentless obsolescence of what is, at every step (temporarily) state-of-the-art. And thus the mystery only deepens. The more we see, the less we seem to know.
Several paintings in 34-118.5 use a palette of molecularly identical pigments that 17th and 18th century artists used. Consequently, they appear to imitate ‘old master’ paintings. But paintings from that era look like they do largely because of that limited selection of pigments, which, narrow as it seems, represented the highest technological expression of the time, i.e. the state-of-the-art. Further, the photographs in 35-118.5 made with Kodak color negatives manufactured in the 1970s trigger our visual memory of the 70s. Kodak Vericolor and Kodacolor film–not to mention the Mamiya RB67 camera–were state-of-the-art during the 1970s. Kodak films dominated both commercial and amateur photography around the globe, and imposed a vision of reality during most of the 20th century, just as pigments like lapis lazuli, Naples yellow, brown ochre and stack lead white form the Western vision of reality from the 1600s and 1700s.
Impermanence and decay is another theme in Whatley’s work. The materials he uses underscore this. An additional selection of paintings in 34-118.5 is based on photographs made from an expired batch of Agfacolor 100. Manufactured in the early 1980s, the film was improperly stored. Its degradation has led to greatly increased contrast and loss of color fidelity. In a collision of one imaging technology with another (the ‘slow’ medium of oil paint vs. the ‘fast’ medium of photography), the paintings use the decayed film’s expressionistic colors as well as geometric patterns super-imposed by lens flares.
Ultimately, Whatley’s landscapes present reality. The reality they represent could not be more concrete. Yet the works all feel evanescent, like memories, dreams and reflections.
Julian Whatley trained as an assistant cameraman–roughly ten years– with leading Hollywood image-makers like David Fincher, Harris Savides, Robert Richardson, John Toll, Dariusz Wolski, and Jan de Bont, on films like Basic Instinct, Lethal Weapon III, Seven, and The Game. He then worked more than twenty years as a Director of Photography. His cinematography highlights include lensing the 2005 Sundance Film Festival best-dramatic-feature award winner Forty Shades of Blue, music videos for Greenday, No Doubt, Avril Lavigne and Korn (for which he received an MTV best cinematography nomination), along with hundreds of commercials for dozens of Fortune 500 brands.
Julian maintained an art practice throughout, making avant-garde films, as well as landscape and documentary photographs. He recently expanded into oil painting. His artwork explores themes of time, decay and perception.