Jeremy Blake, Mod Lang, 2001. Digital animation, dimensions variable. Collection of the Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Museum Purchase

Jeremy Blake (American, 1971–2007)

Mod Lang, 2001
Digital animation, dimensions variable
Museum Purchase

Vibrant colors and hypnotic rhythms characterize what Jeremy Blake called his “time-based paintings,” digital animations whose shapes morph and mutate in translucent layers. He began making these works in the 1990s, drawing upon his training as an abstract painter, his knowledge of twentieth-century art and architectural history, and his fascination with popular culture. Although highly abstract, the animations are often rooted in uncanny narratives, both real and fictional, taken from artists’ biographies, popular contemporary legends, and Blake’s own imagination. The artist did not tell these stories outright but instead hinted at them with carefully chosen sounds and images. In a 2001 interview about Mod Lang, he explained: “I am interested in the fact that narrative cues, such as suspenseful noises, are extremely disorienting when used in a largely abstract, time-based artwork. . . . It’s important to me that the threat of a narrative intrusion transforms the work.”

Mod Lang was first the title of a larger installation that included two other digital animations, three chromogenic prints, and a set of ten drawings that provided a sort of storyboard for the show. There, the drawings told Blake’s story of a teenage hipster, Keith (“Slick”) Rhoades, who wrecks his motor scooter on a rainy London street one night. Believed to have suffered brain damage due to the accident, Rhoades razes a historic castle and in its place erects a home for stylish vampires. This leads him to be banished from England and sent to southern California, where he lives happily in exile. The three projected animations, on a separate wall from the drawings, were loosely related to the story. In the title animation, Mod Lang, sliding doors part to reveal what might be a hallucinogenic image of the slick street on which Rhoades crashed. Rivulets of rich, viscous hues stream down the screen—expanding, contracting, overlapping, and merging into one another.

These streams of color evoke the mid-twentieth-century paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who explored the possibilities of color saturation by pouring paint onto unprimed canvases. The influential critic Clement Greenberg championed these color-field artists, whose work represented his ideal of modern painting, which was that it should simply be about the application of paint to a flat surface. Blake consciously referenced the color-field paintings but also purposely linked them to a story and, by setting them in a continuous animated loop, created the illusion that their flow is perpetual.

Blake’s approach to his art—at once serious and lighthearted—is succinctly conveyed in his explanation of the title Mod Lang, which originally was the title of a song by the Memphis rock band Big Star:

"To me, “Mod Lang” calls up a nice range of possible interpretations. It could be short for something as high-minded as “modernist language,” or it could be “languid mods,” maybe after a group of young people who are blissfully wiped out after being up for 48 hours.(2)"

--Emily Stamey
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Blake interviewed by Tim Griffin, “H-h-h-his Generation: Jeremy Blake Remakes Mod at the Turn of the Millennium,” Time Out New York, October 18–25, 2001: 76.
2. Blake quoted in Sarah Valdez, “Attack of the Abstract,” Art in America 90,
no. 3 (March 2002): 104–5.