- This week marks the opening of the large show of art and films of the twin brothers, Stephen and Timothy Quay, at the Museum of Modern Art.
This was previously displayed in New York at the Parson’s School of Design in 2009, and it was well covered on this blog. Here.
This part of the show is still exciting and interesting. Magnifying and distorted glasses reveal portholes within boxes wherein struggling puppets exist within very tactile worlds. Harsh strokes of bark mix with feathers, muslin and strong textile designs. I’m not sure if anything is being stated within these boxes except a display of the world of isolation and dissonance Kafka has already introduced to us. However, it’s certainly hypnotic peering through these cracked glasses at the prepared tableau.
The displayed art fills the vestibule leading to the Titus 1 theater on the lowest level of the museum. It might take a good half hour to properly view all of these constructions. Yet, one is always in awe of the detailed work that has gone into construction of the enclosed world and the many hours of intense labor it took to produce. Patterns and studied period costumes meticulously constructed; props of foliage and raw wood blend with iron and other mixed metals. Then, light calligraphic type blends softly with all these course grains. There’s a lot to absorb in the tiny claustrophobic boxes. This world relates well with the similar animated stop-motion films of the brothers.
The principal part of the show sits upstairs on the second floor just around the corner from the main cafe. Small rooms have walls covered with delicate photographs, etchings, and drawings. Puppets encased in glass enclosures sit within these walls of flat art. It’s assembled chronologically, and at the very beginning we see separate pieces of art signed by the two brothers. Two landscapes, one by Stephen, one by Tim – both 8 years old. This is the only piece of art not attributed to the Quay Brothers – the pair of them. Very delicate drawings with the signature of both brothers. There are no exceptions within this show other than those two tiny landscape paintings. One easily understands the dual signature on films or even etchings where different responsibilities can be joined. This is difficult to understand two names attributed to an extremely delicate and detailed pencil drawing. However, this is the universe they’ve established, and it’s an original distinction. It fits into the world of the Quays, where everything feels man-made, done at the turn of the Century (19th to 20th Century). It’s a world wrought by the Industrial Revolution, an art that has nothing to do with digital anything. You can feel the hands that have molded these artworks.
There are many rooms wherein films, the principal part of their art, play out on warm gray walls. A few black folding chairs sit in front of these screens in the tight spaces. Visitors can sit and watch for a minute or for the entire film. I stopped for all of the films but sat through only one, Igor, a film about Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau and Vladimir Mayakovsky. This was the first of the animated biographies they did for Channel 4 out of their own studio in London, Atelier Koninck. It works through Constructivist art to move the three through Paris and their art world. The studio was founded in conjunction with Keith Griffiths, another student they met at the Royal College of Art who became a lifelong partner in producing their works of art.
The first film that the brothers made that grabbed my attention played at the 1980 Ottawa Animation Festival. Nocturna Artificialia confused half the audience of cartoon lovers and excited the other half. Art was alive at that Festival and it felt a small disappointment that the brothers (very new to the animation world – in fact, no one had heard of them back then) had not come to the Festival with their film. This is a case, though, where the film certainly did all the talking that it had to. Tale of Tales deservedly won the Grand award that year, but the Quay brothers were well introduced to American animators.
Street of Crocodiles
It was only a few short years later, 1986, that the film, Street of Crocodiles, would make its debut and make the brothers famous. This still remains one of their best known films, although the music video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer would be their best known work.
The MoMA exhibit continues through to the end of its space, packed to overflowing. Many works stand out from the rest though they all display a singular vision – that of the Quay Brothers.
I attended a Q&A with the brothers Quay led by Ron Magliozzi who organized the show as the Associate Curator of the Dept. of Film. At first, there was a brief conversation with the four, including Peter Reed, the Senior Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairsfor MoMA. This was eventually opened to the audience, which meant some not very interesting questions were asked. I’d recorded it with the idea of transcribing the session for this blog, but the questions were so mundane that the brothers were almost astonished, and I dismissed the notion of transcribing as pointless. One person asked if they’d had nightmares as children to be able to create such dreamworlds. The answer was no, they didn’t dream and the art is not a dream world. Another questioner asked if they felt they’d had a nutritional shortage as children which might have created such ideas as adults. Tim immediately answered, “Yes,” to that, and Stephen quickly responded, “Too much white bread and peanut butter.”
I went to the Press Preview in the morning to be able to view the show at length. The only two I saw there that I knew were Candy Kugel (of Buzzco) and Richard O’Connor (of Ace and Son.) I came back in the evening for the official opening party. Drinks and hors d’ oeuvres with a moderately crowded audience that covered the first floor of the museum and swelled out to the MoMA sculpture garden. It was a warm and humid evening, so it was nice outside, but air conditioned inside. Groups traveled upstairs and down to see the art, but to drink, eat and socialize many just stayed on the main floor. I met up with plenty of people I knew including Emily Hubley, John Canemaker, Candy Kugel, Jeremiah Dickey, Josh Siegel (of MoMA), George Griffin and Karen Cooper, among others. Though I’d only seen Stephen Quay at the opening, I was told that Tim was outside in the garden. It was an eventful day that felt filled with art and animation.