For over five decades, Pat O'Neill has explored the materiality of film. A selection of films by Pat O'Neill will be screened at Art Basel | Film on Friday, June 20, 10pm, at Stadtkino Basel (adjacent to Kunsthalle Basel).
As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times notes, in the late 1960s O'Neill, "introduced optical printing into his work, a step that allowed him to maximize the medium's plasticity several decades before computer-based composition systems made image manipulation widely accessible. In an optical printer, filmed images are copied onto raw film stock, allowing the filmmaker to subject the images to an array of photographic techniques, including fades and multiple exposures. Optical printers have various industrial uses, but one distinct advantage for film artists is that they allow them to manipulate live-action images the way animators do."
O'Neill's late 60s work reveals a keen interest in the possibilities of expanded photographic practice. A friend and peer of Robert Heinecken, with whom he studied at UCLA, O'Neill was also in close conversation with the Bay Area-based Bruce Conner, East Coast filmmakers like Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton, and a diverse group of LA-based artists loosely experimenting with the interaction between photography, installation and film (that included people like Carl Cheng and Robert Whitman).
O'Neill is lauded as a pioneer in avant-garde film. Early works like "Screen" (1969), now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, were intended to be presented in art galleries. These pieces explore not only the physicality of film stock, but also the objectness of film, the projected image and its framing. O'Neill's intense physical manipulation of film stock pre-figured many special effects that would later become commonplace in the movie industry. Dargis goes on to point out that, "Los Angeles has also long been home to artists for whom film is neither a blood sport nor the means to a very lucrative end, but a deeply personal expression. One such is Pat O'Neill, a filmmaker who has brushed conceptual elbows with such radically different personalities as the avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren and that consummate commercial moviemaker George Lucas."
Many of O'Neill's works take on Southern California and Los Angeles in particular as an uncertain subject - a displaced location in space and time. Often shot in various locations with "the intent to produce 'synthetic' depictions of locations made up of multiple and disparate parts," O'Neill's films combine visual effects with a visceral soundtrack. As O'Neill writes, the goal is to "present an image that is both clearly understood and obviously altered. Altering the imagery from its original photographic state raises inevitable questions concerning its reception: What are we to believe? How is a representation changed by proximity with another? How does contradiction, itself, represent our experience?" And goes on to point out that, "My films share some of the concerns of other experimental filmmakers worldwide: defining parameters for the representation of space and time, exploiting personal experience as metaphor, using archival materials in a restated context."