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Animations that Show Their Material Roots

By Rob Colvin

February 16, 2016

A silhouette of a horse is drawn mid-stride several times in layers to create the effect of motion. It was done on a cave wall almost 25,000 years before Marcel Duchamp used the same technique in “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912). Let’s call that horse the beginning of animation.

Markings of history are inherent to animation; this is true of all art, but emphasized in animation’s employment of time and narrative. Liquid Pictures at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery puts time (less so narrative) on display. The show — named in honor of MTV’s 1990sLiquid Television program of experimental animation shorts — features all New York artists: Leah Beeferman, Melissa Brown, Erica Magrey, and Adam Shecter. Four walls for four artists in a darkened room.

Shecter’s “Study for Satellites 3” (2015) employs three monitors, two horizontal with a vertical on the right. GIFs, video, text, and still images intermingle, come and go, and create a fragmented narrative of two people, “A” and “The Diver.” The visuals are diverse enough in arrangement to be engaging, even when their sequencing doesn’t satisfy the human need for a decipherable storyline. This makes the piece feel the most contemporary in the show. At the same time, in a twist of time, “Study for Satellites 3” is inspired in part by The Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century. Inchoate as the video is, it’s still an effective teaser for Shecter’s yet-to-come final piece.

Melissa Brown’s “Game Changer”  (2016) is a stop-motion animation projected onto the northern wall of the gallery. In a sequence beginning with a desk-bound office worker’s fidgety hands, the viewer is thrown into a “what if” dream of winning it big. Rapid, stream-of-consciousness visions of gambling — scratch-off lottery tickets, dice, playing cards, slot machines, and the potential payoffs — run amuck, to the edge of incoherence. (Why are skeletons killing each other? Once dismembered, they appear as “die,” perhaps a play on words to return to the theme of games.) Her technique is collage based; she uses paint, drawing, objects — whatever works. And all of it does. The attention given to the materiality of the video enriches its tactility, breaking down the barrier between the viewer’s physical space and the artwork’s intangibility. The stop-motion technique makes the work the most retro in the show.

Brown’s piece also brings to mind how closely the institutional art world regulates the range of emotional orientations a work must have to be taken seriously. Art needs to be high-minded, as opposed to silly or sentimental, and take a position, even if by satire or irony. This is correlated to the role of the artist as degreed professional, the artist as cultural purveyor, a knower. (Why else must we suffer through “the artist statement”?) Brown, with her relentless humor, follows no one’s instructions. Therein lies the disruptive pleasure of her work.

To the right is Leah Beeferman’s “Supersolid 1” (2014). It shows, on a horizontal monitor, what an abstract painting would look like if it were quickly done with — if you remember this archaic program — Microsoft Paint. The overlapping gestural marks made in “airbrush” mode are in places disrupted by images or videos of rocks and water. All of the elements move very slowly. The experience is much like watching a screensaver, which, to be honest, you can do right now by putting your computer to sleep.

Erica Magrey’s “Tag Sale Cosmology” (2016) is adapted from an interactive, retro-looking web platform she finished in 2013. Cleverly positioned across from Brown’s “Game Changer,” it features Magrey interacting with handmade and found objects as if playing her own game. Some of the items, ranging from the ordinary to the oddly unidentifiable, are physically present in the gallery too, challenging the real vs. virtual bifurcation just as Brown does. The surreal scenarios, all of them non sequiturs — why is Magrey sleeping on three sides of a rotating triangle clock? — dare us to laugh.

Liquid Pictures qualifies as a show of new media art, but by skipping the moniker it brings to attention video animation’s filial relationship with the more traditional plastic arts of drawing, painting, and sculpture. The four artists here are running through their images at roughly 24–60 frames per second. That’s pretty fast. I wonder how fast it is compared to a running horse.