Art for Art’s Sake

Artists Inspired by Noir

“Santa Monica Pier by Helen Garber (2002)

Noir is everywhere these days, used to flog everything from over-priced coffee and cheap lingerie to high-end make-up and mediocre crime films that mistake ill-fitting fedoras and second-hand cigarette smoke for style.

But real fans know that noir is more than just a few visual effects and a cool marketing tool. And real artists “get it,” too.

Not that I’m a real artist (at least not anymore), but from October 2014 to through March 1, 2015, the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences teamed up to celebrate those artists who “got it.” And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

They presented The Noir Effect (part of their larger “Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950” exhibit) to celebrate “the visual style of film noir: gritty shadows, low-key lighting, tilted horizon lines (which) has influenced many visual arts, from television and video games to advertising,” noting its effect on contemporary photography and other media, and gave rise to major trends in popular culture, art, and media.

The show, which I was fortunate enough to catch, included some eye-popping work by Cindy Sherman, Bill Armstrong, Ronald Corbin, Ed Ruscha, Jane O’Neal and Helen K. Garber.

Other artists whose work is steeped in the unholy black swirl of hard-boiled and noir include Owen Smith, Leslie Peterson Sapp,  and Mark Krajnak.

Yes, there were–and are–others, but these were the ones who’ve caught my eye, then and since.


  • His eerie, disassociated images, particularly in his on-going Infinity series, started back in 1997, are characterized by deeply saturated, not-quite-right colors and vaguely disturbing abstract shapes and figures, snapshots of a fevered dream that manages to nail the ominous and often surreal mood of film noir, despite his use of a wide palette of colours.
    “My unique process”, the artist explains, “of appropriating images and subjecting them to a series of manipulations–photocopying, cutting, painting, re-photographing–transforms the originals and gives them a new meaning in a new context. Extreme blurring makes the edges within the collages disappear, so the photographs appear to be seamless, integrated images. This sleight of hand allows me to conjure a mysterious”tromp l’oeil” world that hovers between the real and the fantastic. It is a world just beyond our grasp, where place may be suggested, but is never defined, and where the identity of the amorphous figures remains in question. It is a world that might exist in memory, in dreams, or, perhaps, in a parallel universe yet unvisited.”


  • Corbin believes says “Photography is a way of life for me. It has very little to do with cameras but everything to do with the subject be it a person… or cityscape.” It’s his cityscapses the Skirball chose to highlight–and certainly his haunting black and white snaps of the City of Angels manage to capture all the broken promises and shattered dreams of the desolate rain-soaked sidewalks and neon lights that pervaded the classic noir era, but most of this Philly artist’s work focusses on people: the broken and damned, the homeless and the outsiders, the lost and the lonely, and they’re every bit as haunting and evocative of noir as any of his work.


  • The Queen of the Nocturnal Urban Landscape, Garber’s images have been exhibited and reside in collections around the world. Eerie and evocative, there’s an unsettling chill to much of her stark, black and white work, although I’ll be damned if I can figure out how she does it. She’s done several “noir” series, including Euro-Noir, NY Noir, Urban Noir and LA Noir (from which the top photo on this page was taken) but her best known work is probably the bold, colourful A Night View of Los Angeles, a forty foot long, 360-degree panarama of the entire city, printed on one continuous piece of silk, commissioned for the 2006 International Biennale of Architecture in Venice, Italy. She’s also one hell of a portrait photographer, and has dabbled in a series of mixed-media works entitled Encaustic Noir.


  • From the turnpike to the backstreets, New Jersey-based photographer Mark Krajnak knows his way around the usual suspects: fedoras, dames, gats and, of course, Lucky Strikes. But anyone who thinks it’s just about the props from a runaway American dream is missing the point — Krajnak’s moody snaps of loneliness and regret are like a slap in the face you can still feel days — or even years — later. Lately he’s been supplying the cover shots for Altus Press’ Race Williams collections.
    “Think old Humphrey Bogart and Veronica Lake movies,” he explains. “To me there is noir, and then there’s Jersey Noir..” But why settle for a few words, when a picture’s worth a thousand of ’em? Head on over to Jersey Style and check out some of his awesome offerings of Friday Noir.” Tell him Kevin sent ya.

Painting, Collage

  • An artist who uses collage, painting and printmaking to create narrative works of art, and makes no bones about being inspired by the past, most notably classic film noir imagery. “I love old movies, music from bygone days, historical architecture and vintage cars. Listening to history podcasts, watching documentaries, and reading classic literature helps me to learn about the world and ask myself ‘how did we get here?’ I use art to play with this and put the past into a contemporary context.”


  • The Los Angeles-based dynamic duo of Mitchell Scott Rouse and Brittany Jones (aka “Mitch & Brittany”) focused on fine art photography and independent filmmaking. Both alumni of LA’s Loyola MaryMount Univesity, writer/director Rouse and producer Jones first teamed up in 2009, opening a studio in downtown Los Angeles and by 2011 they had launched their production company, Fantastic Light Films. Last I heard, they were working on M.O., an independent feature-length film.
    Rouse tried to explain the appeal of film noir: “For me, it’s the look of them. They are extremely moody and kind of based on even earlier types of movies, namely German Expressionist films from the ’20s – so silent film. Without sound in these films, the creators had to tell stories completely visually.  So noir in general and our particular project are very much influenced visually by that. It’s all shadows and darkness versus pure light, which photographically comes out very striking. Also, the stories themselves are just very appealing. Noir consists of these very dark stories, which come out very interesting and mysterious in pictures.”


  • Her photos may suggest David Lynch at times, but her audacious use of stomach-churning pulpy colours suggest an even more unsettling and disturbing world, particularly in her seventies and eighties work, such as “The Red Shoe” above. There are very few people in her work from this period, but the sense of loneliness, menace and dread is palpable, as though there were people there once, but they’re gone now. Because something bad happened to them. Something very very bad.

Painting, drawing, photography

  • Ruscha’s paintings, photos, and books feature such icons of the American West as the Hollywood sign, freeway gas stations, parking lots, and billboards, but it’s his obsession with Los Angeles, his adopted hometown for more than 50 years, that brings the noir on home, and continues to be an influence on his work. Long interested in “the vernacular language of advertising, automobile culture and urban architecture,” he was considered an important part of the Pop Art movement (despite his protests), and drew acclaim for his Beat Generation-influenced collages and text-based pieces. That interest is still reflected in his startling and powerful juxtapositions of imagery and typography, such as “Question?”  above.

Photography, Collage

  • In her groundbreaking “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-81), a series of seventy black-and-white self-portaits, Sherman rounded up all the usual stereotypical female roles (vamp, tramp, housewife, etc.) inspired by fifties and sixties Hollywood, film noir, B flicks, and art-house films. Acting as her own model, she gave them right back to us, straight up, no chaser, as a series of stills from movies that were never made. “As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.”
    Crime fiction fans might also get a kick out o “Murder Mystery,” a sort of artsy-fartsy version of Clue created between 1975 and 1977, when Ms. Sherman was still a student at the State University of New York (Buffalo). The work is  a series of black-and-white photographs in which she Sherman plays all the characters in a murder mystery (maid, detective, assorted suspects), cut out and reassembled them in various scenarios. “It was originally one piece that was a Hollywood-style narrative and she played thirteen different characters herself,” said Alexander Ferrando of Metro Pictures. “She photographed herself and then excruciatingly cut out by hand all of these figures from the photographs and placed them directly on the wall.”

Photography, Sculpture

  • Who says they don’t do ’em like they used to? Long before Hard Case Crime made it safe  for pulp cover art (again), San Francisco fine artist and illustrator Owen Smith was keeping the flame alive. I’ve been a fan of this artist and his pulpy cover illustrations ever since I first noticed his work on the cover of The Low End of Nowhere, a novel by Michael Stone featuring his hard-ass Denver bounty hunter and sometime private eye Streeter. Since then I’ve been delighted to see his work pop up–he has a very distinctive style– all over the place. An Aimee Man album cover. The cover of Maureeen Dowd’s best-selling Are Men Really Necessary? The covers of magazines likeThe New Yorker and  Mother Jones. A series of San Francisco street posters celebrating Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (above).


Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Adam Bormann for his help with this page.


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