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A Closer Look

Still from Take
Still from Take Your Picture with a Puma, 2010, by Jennifer Levonian (Courtesy of the artist and Fleisher/Ollman Gallery)
The history of animation is closely linked to the desire to capture motion in two dimensions. Although early attempts at animating images and photographs in the nineteenth century prefigure the invention of film, it was nevertheless with the use of photography and film that animation fully developed as an art form in the twentieth century. As a moving-image genre, animation is not usually associated with cinematic forms or effects and it has been marginalized in film theory and study. In his essay The Animated Film, Michael O’Pray suggests several reasons why the genre has largely been ignored. Chief among them are its “promiscuity of forms” ranging from “Hollywood cartoons to abstract modernist animation, from puppet films to types of special-effects cinema to computer-generated moving imagery” and the “use of a broad array of image-making materials and techniques,” such as drawing, paint, clay, dolls, computers, glass, film footage, and paper cutouts. This profusion of materials and techniques makes it difficult to clearly define animation and the artistic genre to which it belongs.

Yet the very characteristics that make animation so difficult to define are also a reason why so many contemporary artists have adopted it as their medium of choice. Embracing its multiplicity of forms, these artists use animation to examine formal elements of their studio-based practice in narrative contexts that address both personal and communal experiences. They often employ stop-motion animation to create highly innovative films, complemented by original musical scores, narration, and dialogue. Live Cinema/Histories in Motion presents the work of three young artists who infuse their animations with personal reflections on contemporary life and its complex dynamics. These films—by Jennifer Levonian, Martha Colburn, and Joshua Mosley—are characterized by a critical engagement with the larger world and are representative of a generation for whom the moving image and its cinematic qualities have become the prevailing form of expression.

The works in Histories in Motion address particular aspects of our contemporary experience that range from daily interactions to ideological debates. History, as a record of both the distant past and recent events, is made up of innumerable accounts chronicling diverse aspects of human life. Stories become histories—some public, others private; some unfolding quietly, others stridently; some contested, revisited, and at times rewritten, others more easily accepted. Although they differ in subject matter, style, and processes of production, these animated films take aspects of our mundane reality and render them remarkable. The narratives presented here are thought-provoking and open-ended, immersing the viewer in mesmerizing visions of reality.

In Image, Music, Text, Roland Barthes noted that narrative “is simply there, like life itself,” embodied in “a prodigious variety of genres, themselves distributed amongst different substances—as though any material were fit to receive man’s stories.” In the form of moving images, narrative is characterized by plurality and universality; in the context of cinema, it refers to the strategies, codes, and conventions employed to organize a story. Narrative cinema uses mise-en-scène and lighting, for example, as a means of reproducing the “real” world, one which the spectator can either identify with or consider to be within the realm of possibility. The animated films shown in Histories in Motion include various cinematic devices—text, voice-over, dialogue, music, montage—all of which contribute to their narrative structures even if the stories created do not have a clear resolution. Each animated film brings to this exhibition the unique individual vision of the three artists.

Jennifer Levonian juxtaposes autobiographical details and French avant-garde cinema references in her stories, which explore what she considers to be the overlooked minutiae of modern life. Take Your Picture with a Puma continues the artist’s exploration of the everyday through the lens of cinema. At the same time, it marks a new chapter in Levonian’s work, as she perfects the strategies used in constructing her previous narratives. As becomes apparent in the opening of Take Your Picture with a Puma, the film’s title is inspired by an invented Lonely Planet guide’s suggestion of how to add spice to one’s trip to Mexico. Set in a Mexican town during the tourist season, the film centers around the actions of two female characters—one a tourist (and Levonian’s alter-ego), the other a mysterious graffiti artist—and the unnamed male owner of the local bakery, who provides the voice-over narration. References to French cinema are more subtle than in Levonian’s earlier animations, as she quotes from The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), part of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series. As in Rohmer’s film, the male character begins his voice-over by stating the exact coordinates of the location of the story, down to the front window of his bakery. He then reveals his interest in the tourist who passes by regularly without noticing him, although, like one of the female characters in The Bakery Girl of Monceau, she ignores him “too intensely not to be aware of him.”

By using a similar narrative structure and even fragments of dialogue from Rohmer’s film, Levonian clearly points to her source. The French New Wave filmmaker’s interest in small subjects and the dynamics of the couple are mirrored here but always with a twist. The mysterious forces that connect people and their desire to communicate beyond language bring the three characters together in a remarkable scene set in the bakery. While the interaction between the baker and the tourist consists of meowing and hissing, the bakery’s counter girl is more successful in connecting with the tourist, as they arrange to meet later. The musical soundtrack, composed by Nathan Parker Smith, accompanies the baker’s stream-of-consciousness narrative and contributes to the dreamy quality of the film, whose denouement is inconclusive. As he prepares the next day’s guava tart, the baker assesses his failure to connect with the tourist and hopes that once she tastes his pastries she will return for more. His final thoughts are a direct quote from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666: “Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet.” And this, it seems, is what he would have liked to tell the young woman in the bakery to make her stay. Take Your Picture with a Puma is as much an homage to Rohmer’s film as it is to the vibrancy of street life in Mexico, beautifully evoked by Levonian’s intense color scheme and her keen attention to detail.

Still from Join
Still from Join the Freedom Force, 2009, by Martha Colburn (Courtesy of the artist)
In her films, Martha Colburn takes on subjects as diverse as the Iraq War, methamphetamine abuse, politics, consumerism, sexuality, and events in U.S. history as well as their reverberations in today’s society. The artist spends a significant amount of time researching her themes before making the mesmerizing animations that incorporate a wide range of materials, such as found images, cut paper, puzzle pieces, and paintings. These materials are assembled in layered collages produced through the use of multiple glass panes. The final animations are the result of an intense stop-action process in which narratives are filmed frame-by-frame using a 16 mm camera. A dynamically paced animated film, Join the Freedom Force explores street protest around the world on the rhythm of the instrumental sonic music piece Casio Halbzeit by the Dutch experimental band Knalpot.

A sequence of images relating to mass demonstrations parade in front of the viewer at a speed that makes it difficult to discern what cause is being championed by the protesters. The signs and messages displayed by demonstrators in the film make reference to animal rights (Have a Heart: Boycott the Zoo); environmental issues (Burn Fat Not Oil); gay rights (Gay Rights Are Human Rights); pro-peace sentiments (End the War Now); anti-China rhetoric (China Stop Killing Tibetans); and anti-consumerism (Work. Be Silent. Consume. Die.). The procession of protesters gives the animation the feel of a newscast on a politically hyperactive day, where demonstrators and police clash repeatedly and at times violently. As in her previous films, Colburn takes a serious topic and—with a mixture of humor and disdain—creates an absurd portrait of our current reality.

Some of the most poignant images in Join the Freedom Force are those of young Middle Eastern women holding up signs that simply demand democracy (Where Is My Vote?). Here, Colburn returns to a subject she has previously addressed in her animations: the relationship between the United States and its military deployments in the Middle East, a part of the world that since 9/11 has become the contested territory for American values. Protest in itself is a democratic form of expression closely linked to one of America’s most cherished constitutional rights: freedom of speech. By making protest the subject of her intense investigation, Colburn casts a critical eye on the dissonance in political beliefs in different parts of the world. Freedom of speech is used and abused in the countries that have had democratic systems in place for centuries (Chickens Are Friends Not Food reads one of the slogans in Colburn’s film), while attempts at claiming that fundamental right have profound meaning in a country untested in democracy. The violent outcome of these democratic outbursts in foreign lands turns Colburn’s film into a morality tale: in today’s world, protests can do little to alter the course of events or affect any substantial political change. Freedom of expression is therefore presented as a symbolic democratic value, spreading virally throughout the world. The story articulated has a documentary quality, portraying contemporary protest and the injustices that fuel it.

Still from Int
Still from International, 2010, by Joshua Mosley (Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery)
The animated films of Joshua Mosley address universal questions through their characters’ scripted dialogues. These characters struggle to make sense of the world around them while revealing the contradictions inherent in their own perceptions of reality. Mosley works on his animations for years at a time, researching and gathering information related to the subject under investigation. During that process, a narrative emerges, one that weaves together the various aspects of the story and the artist’s complex cinematic lexicon. For Mosley, working with animation has led to the exploration of the photographic qualities of the moving image and his most recent work involves 3D-scanned sculptures in landscapes created using stop-motion photography.

Named after the 1937 International D-50 flatbed truck, International (2010) focuses on two historical figures, American builder and philanthropist George Brown (1898–1983) and Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992). Engaged in an imaginary conversation (the two never met), Brown and Hayek share their views on how a nation’s ideal economic and social order should evolve. Mosley uses voice recordings of the two men captured between 1968 and 1978, as they reflect on defining moments of their careers. Brown recalls his company’s building of the Marshall Ford Dam on the Colorado River, a project that was supported by the federal government’s New Deal program. Although Brown was not a proponent of New Deal policies, he never¬theless profited from them and from the government contracts that followed in 1942, when he established Brown Shipbuilding Company, which constructed military ships for the U.S. government. His success as an entrepreneur allowed him to pursue philanthropic endeavors. As the selected voice recordings used by Mosley in International reveal, Brown struggled to reconcile his personal views with his public actions, especially his relationship with what he calls the “central government.”

Similarly, the voice recordings of Friedrich Hayek expose the economist’s internal contradictions and how they are reconciled through his self-defined logic. Hayek maintains that throughout his life he “avoided getting tied up in politics” or “policy matters.” Yet his most notable contributions were to the field of economics, specifically relating to the theory of money and economic fluctuations, and he was an unfaltering defender of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism against socialist ideology. For his influential work, Hayek received the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics and became a key figure in the conservative movements in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Mosley’s exploration of the landscapes in which the builder and the economist lived and worked reveals the impact of these settings on the two men and, in turn, the men’s impact on the larger American physical and ideological landscape. Among those locations are: the Hôtel du Parc in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, where economists, philosophers, and historians met in 1947 to discuss the fate of classical liberalism and, in their view, the crisis of socialism; and a triangular plot of land at the confluence of the Green Bayou and Houston Ship Channel in Texas purchased by Brown’s company in 1941 to complete a series of federal shipbuilding contracts. The truck that gives the animation its title is seen driving on old Northwest Coast logging roads, a relic of a period of tremendous growth for Brown’s enterprise as well as a symbol of his expanding industry. The images and recorded voices are accompanied by Mosley’s musical score of single notes played on a 1938 Haines Brothers piano, the same model owned by Brown’s family.

The three animations in Histories in Motion echo the complexity of the world we live in, its variety of experiences equally reflected in the materials and techniques used by the artists. The watercolors used by Jennifer Levonian in Take Your Picture with a Puma are presented as part of a series of collages that complement her animation. The materiality of these works on paper allows not only a better understanding of the laborious process involved in stop-action animation but also provides a closer look at its otherwise fleeting images. Their unforgettable colors and textures lend an additional dimension to Levonian’s lyrical story. Martha Colburn’s multilayered collages are as dazzling as her animation. The slogans that are barely legible in the film are fixed and inescapable in her static collages, reinforcing the artist’s view of a world in turmoil. As with his previous work dread (2007), Mosley created a group of bronze sculptures to accompany his animation. Three bronzes are part of his video and sculptural installation: two represent Brown and Hayek, while the third is a replica of the 1937 International D-50 truck and the only sculpture used in the making of the animation. The physicality of these dark and heavy forms allows the viewer to contemplate their significance in a three-dimensional context. These objects reveal some of the processes and labor-intensive methods employed by the three artists to achieve the narrative flow of their animations.

The works in this exhibition embody the plurality and universality of the moving-image narrative, elaborately constructed with the use of dialogue, music, text, and editing. In their diversity, the animations in Histories in Motion prompt us to reflect on our contemporaneity by critically engaging our worldview. Stories reveal themselves through the individual lens of each artist, inviting us on journeys at time poetic, absurd, and meditative.