Weird, Wired, Mesmerizing Momento Mori: The Animations of Jake Fried

Psychedelic, hypnotic, and with an obsessive quality about them which moves them well into the territory of the weird, Jake Fried’s animations are self-consciously retro, or as he himself describes them ‘retro-futurist.’

In his latest project, The Deep End, this retro feel is initiated by the soundtrack of static from an old record, and then reinforced by the materiality of the images, which are all hand-drawn and painstakingly created with ink and white-out, and also coffee, which he both drinks and paints with. The painstakingly hand-drawn frames, all one thousand five hundred of them, are composited into a one-minute futurist-velocity animation with an edgy, highly caffeinated speed and feel.

Here is the link to Jake Fried’s animation The Deep End. You can find another five of his animations on his web site at

It could be said that one of the real pleasures in watching these animations lies in spotting the influences and references in this work, e.g. surrealist collage, woodcuts, graffiti, comic books, tattoos, masonic and illuminati imagery, and cartoons.

The Deep End starts with its retro sound of static and the slow introduction to the materiality of the process of creating the images, and then moves into a succession of animated drawings, or as the artist himself calls them “moving paintings.” These are so thoroughly steeped in the history of painting and drawing, and so confident in the way they move through different styles, genres and references that, in itself, the animation becomes an exploration of the psychic territory of an individual, the artist, in the process of absorbing, reflecting and refracting history, images and influences. The pacing of the animation shows an onslaught, a hyper-saturation of images, ideas, and cultures, and in this way, embodies the self-aware positioning of the work as retro-futurist, yet the feel is absolutely contemporary.

There is in this work a sense of connection with a particular history of painting that Fried is exploring and developing throughout these animations, and one of the strongest influences is that of Philip Guston’s paintings from the late 1960s onwards.

Guston, one of the most respected and admired of the Abstract Expressionist painters, and a friend and contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Wilhelm de Kooning, caused a ruckus when, in 1969 after a two year break from exhibiting, he started showing his paintings again. In these later paintings he challenged all accepted notions of good taste by breaching the boundaries between High Art and the “vulgar” by introducing his own awkward, intentionally clumsy iconography that referenced comics and cartoons, in particular the drawings of Robert Crumb and the old Krazy Kat cartoons by George Herriman. He introduced these new elements in an attempt to find a graphic language that would allow him to approach painful issues in his painting, such as his own alcoholism and the impact of the Holocaust,

These later paintings of Guston’s got a frosty reception from his contemporaries and from the media at the time, but it is this work, with its deliberate flouting of good taste and convention, which went on to influence the Neo-Expressionists in the 1980s and which is still influencing artists such as Jake Fried today.


Painting, Smoking, Eating” Phillip Guston 1973

These later paintings of Guston’s, such as his 1973 work “Painting, Smoking, Eating,” had a very shallow depth of field, a tightly confined spatial context, and a radically reduced iconography, and these elements, when combined together, produced a sense of claustrophobia and psychic struggle. In his book on Guston’s later work, David Kaufman writes that, in these later paintings, what you see is “literalness”, where “both mental and physical stuff hangs out on the surface of Guston’s paintings, pressed up hard against the picture plane.” This is the same mental and physical space that Jake Fried chooses for his animations.

These later paintings of Guston’s opened new territory for other artists such as Carroll Denham (Lena Denham’s father), who also often uses shapes and images which reference a cartoon or comic-book aesthetic in his paintings.  Denham, in an interview from 1990, says that one of the things he is most interested in is trying to explore in his paintings and drawings their passage through time, and that he often kept a flip book with his images so that he could get a sense of them moving forwards through time.

When I started doing a lot of drawings, I wanted to be able to track them, to order the chronology and also the space and time that separated one idea from the other. Things come about in time. Time is one of the materials. I don’t plan things and then execute them. They come about by me doing them. And some notation of time seems important to their truth… There have been times when [time] became much more of a graphic element — an element of drawing. Time seems to be one of the really basic things we have to work with.

Skip forward a couple of decades and Jake Fried is working with computer technology to develop what could be seen as a fast-forward flip book with his paintings, an extended painting, or series of paintings, which grapple with the notion that Dunham is referring to, e.g. time as a graphic element — a material presence in painting or drawing. In this context, Fried is adding time as a powerful experiential element to painting for the viewer.

It is the animation’s skillful handling of the graphic element of time that gives this work its peculiar resonance –something about the structuring of the graphic elements in relation to time, which gives this animation its strong emotional and existential punch.  The Deep End has a duration of exactly one minute, and this one minute starts relatively slowly and moves into a compressed, high intensity, delineated psychic space, and then progresses towards a relatively long, fade-out to black, to a vanishing, similar to the vanishing of a consciousness.

In this sense, i.e. of a vanishing of a consciousness, the one-minute span of the animation becomes by extension one day, one life.   And in this way, this animation acts as a weird, wired and totally mesmerizing momento mori.

I interviewed Fried while writing this article, to gain a better insight into his artistic process and pursue questions related to perceptions of his work. The body of that interview follows here.

Lavers: Can you describe your process when you make your animations?

Fried: Each animation I make is on one high-grade piece of paper consecutively scanned as I add ink, white-out, and coffee. The Deep End is 1500 scanned frames into Photoshop. They’re compiled and played back at 25 fps on Final Cut Pro. Then I add sound/music last.  I complete about 10 – 25 frames a day (depends on what’s happening in the drawing — like adding small details or making sweeping changes), it takes about 4 months from the first drawing to the final film.

I mostly work evenings and weekends, but as a Museum Educator I have a flexible schedule and am usually done for the day before 4pm.  I find the time because I have to.  If I don’t draw or work on my art for more than a few days I feel physically uncomfortable and anxious — the need to work (or “get the drawings out of me”) is somewhere between an artistic duty and obsession/addiction.

I listen to music, podcasts, radio, movies most of the time when I work. I know artists who feel this influences their output, but for me it’s more of a distraction/stimulus during hours of slow, steady drawing — it keeps me grounded in a way, so I don’t “drift off” mentally or emotionally. For the most part I like to work to more atmospheric, experimental music like Flying Lotus or Nicolas Jaar — but I have a soft spot for singer/songwriters like Townes van Zandt and Elliott Smith (anything that’s emotionally raw and evocative).

I drink a lot of coffee, but I don’t need that much to paint with, a little bit goes a long way. Maybe 2 cups for all of The Deep End, a lot more for drinking.

Lavers: Are you comfortable with your animations being described as ‘retro’ or ‘analog’? — Is there a way of describing this feel that your animations have that you are comfortable with and if so what adjective would you use?

Fried: I’m okay with the term ‘retro.’ But I see it more of as a kind of retro-futurism — as if the work is from the distant past and future at the same time. Essentially something “timeless or universal” versus something “temporary and specific.” I often come back to the term ‘Raw’ to describe what I’m going for — and I think I’m part of the larger trend of ‘lo-fi aesthetics’ that goes back to 80s Punk. I could make the case that my work acts as an antidote or antithesis to the glut of slick, computer generated animations coming out today.  One might even describe American culture today as slick and computer generated — and my work as some sort of human, hand-made rebellion against it.

Lavers: Which visual artists do you like best  — what work moves you — interests you, inspires you, influences you? 

Fried: God, that would be a long list — I was educated as an Art Historian and work for a major museum — I’m as influenced/inspired by Ancient Egyptian tombs as Contemporary Painting. Crumb’s hyper-detailed ink drawings are certainly an influence on my specific style — I would also add Philip Guston and James Ensor as major influences. And even though it seems like such a cliché today — I still learn from Picasso’s work all the time, the guy’s out of control. And although I dislike him personally, I have to mention William Kentridge as a predecessor to what I do.

Lavers: You describe your animations as moving paintings — why do you position your work in relation to painting rather than comic book artists like Robert Crumb?

Fried: I know a lot of people refer to me as an illustrator, but I’ll always see myself as a painter. My work is firmly rooted in the history of Fine Art, and my work isn’t really going for a message/narrative through images, but rather the images are the message. I see my works as “objects of contemplation” in the same way someone would approach a painting or sculpture.

Also, this body of work came out of my painting and drawing practice; I have always layered and reworked my images for weeks. Eventually I realized I was more interested in the “evolution” of the image than any “final state”. So the animations aren’t that different from what I’ve always done; I just didn’t “see them” until I began recording the process.

Lavers: Are there any animators that have inspired you? 

Fried: I don’t really look at other animators for inspiration that much — but some noteworthy contemporaries would be BLU and Allison Schulnik — I think they’re doing amazing work. I have mixed reactions to Cyriak’s work, but he’s probably getting the most attention of any experimental animator out there right know and clearly works his ass off.  Folks like Julia Pott and Jordan Bruner do great stuff too — but their work is a bit too cute and twee for my tastes.

Lavers: Is there any fiction that has influenced your work, any ideas you see yourself exploring through your work, any theoretical writers you have read that have sparked ideas with you? 

Fried: Again, too many to list. But for fiction, Kafka has perhaps had the most profound influence on my work — I’m a huge fan. The writings of Jung and Joseph Campbell are also very important to me. I believe in the collective unconscious and all the symbolism and imagery in my work stem from this belief. I’m not representing one culture or time in my work, but a more holistic view of the human experience.

I wouldn’t describe myself as religious, but there’s definitely a link to the Deconstructionists in this line of thought. There’s a big trend around the world toward personal spirituality over organized or dogmatic belief systems and I think is evident in my work. I think this trend is one of the major shifts in human culture that defines the era we’re living through right now.

Lavers: Do you see your work as being ideas driven? Or do you see your work as evolving through the process of doing it and more connected with process and the materials you are working with and that it kind of develops itself through doing it. 

Fried: Both. The work is not really preplanned, so it does become itself through the process of making. But the “ideas” are always in the background. I think if you’re being honest as an artist, the work tells you what’s next as much as you tell it. I fundamentally believe art-making should be a “discovery” process, otherwise I have no interest. I want to learn something new or follow some unknown path, rather than just executing a plan.

Lavers: Where do you see your work going in the next few years? Or will you just let the process drive you?

Fried: I’m just going to continue on the path that I’m on and see where it takes me. I don’t plan on stopping film-making anytime soon. Just like painting or songwriting, I think the value and insights of my individual films grow as I add more to the body of work. I am exhibiting regularly, but the dream would be a solo museum show where each film is looped on large screens in small viewing rooms in proximity to each other. That way the totality of my expression can truly be witnessed.

The world of online video is developing so rapidly, I can’t really imagine what it will be like in the next few years. But I look forward to the innovations that will lead to new and better ways of distributing and viewing my work.  And I look forward to how these new technologies will lead to the greater democratization of the art world in general.


Works Cited

Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works, by David Kaufmann, University of California Press, 2010

Carroll Dunham by Betsy Sussler, BOMB 30/Winter 1990, ART (Interview, Painting)


4 replies to “Weird, Wired, Mesmerizing Momento Mori: The Animations of Jake Fried

  1. Better than a double espresso , these animations are visually sensational. Jake Fried clearly has a unique , fresh approach.

  2. Pingback: Blog Anima Mundi » Com tinta e café, artista cria pinturas psicodélicas em movimento