Hotel Bel Air Magazine
December 1997
Fragments of Reality
The Art of Jenny Okun
By Michael Webb


Over the past 25 years, Jenny Okun has been creating kaleidoscopic images of boats, landscapes, and buildings. Looking at things in the round the way the cubist painters did. Her brush is a Hasselblad, and she achieves her effects, like the earliest moviemakers, within the camera. She composes an image in her head, imagining juxtapositions of key details, then takes a sequence of six overlapping images, by winding the film forward a third of a frame at a time. "It may take me a whole day to do 2 strips," she says, " and I often spend three days walking around a building, shooting whatever seems interesting. Then I take the transparencies, scan them into a computer, and move them about until I’ve got a single strip or a triptych that I want to print up."
These expansive, often colorful images dazzle the eye and offer a fresh take on familiar sights. The lamps that outline Harrods department store in London become, through Okun’s lens, a thousand points of light that glimmer in the darkness. Casinos on the Las Vegas Strip yield pyrotechnic displays of sizzling neon reds vibrating on the black velvet of the night sky. The fanned Gothic vaults of Exeter Cathedral, a triumph of medieval building technology, ripple and coruscate in a golden light. The Albert Bridge across the Thames in Chelsea is a characteristically Victorian mix of cast-iron classical columns and functional metal strips — much like the stone arches and steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. She fuses its artistry and technology, printing the image in black and white to dramatize the structural daring.
Okun was born in New York, studied art, photography, and film in London, and now commuted back and forth from her English studio to her parents’ home in Beverly Hills. She’s at ease in both countries, embracing architecture that speaks in the language of today, but also finding inspiration in ancient monuments. The Getty commissioned her to create a poster of its new museum, and she dances around and through its pavilions, imagining how the curved canopies of the entrance will compose. "If I know what to expect, I charge right in," she explains, "but here there are so many things I can play with. If the play of light is really exciting I go for it, but even then I’m thinking of the crucial details, the things that don’t change. At the Getty, I’m shooting as many shapes as I can, taking them back to the studio, and thinking about them before I do the final images."
In an age when artists can be maddeningly obtuse about their work, Okun is refreshingly down to earth. She cannot remember what lens she brought to the Getty but says it works fine. The computer is a convenient tool to remove unsightly blemishes from an image or occasionally to move a piece around, but she’s not dependent on it. "I have an incredibly good memory and I know where the major shapes are going to go," she says. "When I’m photographing, certain compositions look perfect — and I can always find them. Years ago, I used a wide-angle lens to get more of the building in and pay homage to the architect. Now I’m focusing on details and going back to abstraction, which is the way I like to paint.
She isn’t sure how she should describe herself — so different is her work from that of photographers who seek to represent a building as explicitly as possible. Okun seems more concerned to look beyond the surfaces to discover the inner essence, and to evoke what is so often missing from two-dimensional images: spatial qualities and the feelings one experiences in walking around. Architecture has the capacity, like people, to awe and excite, to soothe and provoke. It should be a treat, not just for the eyes, but all the senses, and should elicit an emotional response. Some have found a cinematic quality to Okun’s work, deriving from her early work as an experimental filmmaker, and it’s interesting to reflect that, in its early years, the cinema had a strong influence on artists and architects.
Okun was an all-rounder as a student, and she’s gone back to exploring different ways of expressing her feelings about the art of architecture. Scanning an image in the computer intensifies the colors, and she used to tone these down to achieve a more lifelike impression. Frank Gehry’s Vitra Furniture Museum in Germany is a study in silvery grays that Whistler would have admired. More recently, she began to create Iris prints in which the colors often achieve a psychedelic extravagance. She had used charcoal for blurry drawings that express the movement around buildings, and has created a visual shorthand of architecture by drawing on white walls. A similar abstraction finds its way into cut-outs of colored plastic that are sand-blasted to achieve opacity. Lined up on a shelf, these shapes suggest a row of figures conversing animatedly together. Her latest exhibition, at the Craig Krull Gallery, comprises highly abstracted images of Bergamot Station, which has become a major hub of the arts, and demonstrates how skillfully obsolete industrial facilities can be given a new, vital role. It’s an appropriate subject for Okun, whose special talent is to change our perceptions and reveal hidden treasure.

 

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