The puppetry bug, when it hits, cuts deep. Recently, a friend, in a move that few who knew her would ever have expected, auditioned to participate in the opening festivities for the Noah’s Ark installation at the Skirball last year. She made it, played an ostrich, and has been fantasizing ever since about abandoning her career as a filmmaker and scholar for the impassioned, painstaking, none-too-lucrative life of a puppeteer.
It was in her company — which is to say, in the glow of her guileless and contagious enthusiasm — that I found myself having a puppet epiphany of my own; it came while attending a production called Who's Hungry? in a West Hollywood community center several weeks ago. Created by Dan Froot and Dan Hurlin, the program consisted of three short “toy theater” pieces based on the oral histories of homeless Angelenos. The epiphany hit me during the second piece, “Eight Days Without a Dog,” prompted by a pair of binoculars. This small, cheap plastic object became, when topped with a mop of curling ribbon and passed through the hands of four very talented young puppeteers, a woman who spends her days cycling between soup kitchens and welfare offices, who’s known her share of struggle but is determined to maintain an upbeat attitude, her spirits buoyed daily by the companionship of a beloved dog (actually nothing more than a mesh sponge). But when, in a grievous turn of events, this dog goes missing, she spends eight days pounding the pavement, proliferating “Missing” signs, asking everyone she sees for clues, and drifting ever closer to the abyss as she is forced to contemplate a life stripped not only of material comforts but of its most basic emotional foundation as well: the capacity to love and feel connected to another living being. All this, mind you, without a word of dialogue.
The magical quality of this transformation, so fundamental to the enchantment of puppetry — there’s the epiphany — is strangely absent from the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s “The Puppet Show,” a well-intentioned but largely unaffecting exploration through the lens of contemporary art. Organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, it is an ambitious undertaking, with roughly 40 works — video and sculpture primarily — by 27 international artists, as well as a side room dubbed “Puppet Storage” devoted to a crowded collection of actual puppets and related ephemera. There are a number of obvious but nonetheless appropriate inclusions — Dennis Oppenheim’s 1974 installation of self-portrait marionettes, Theme for a Major Hit; a pair of Kara Walker’s grotesquely beautiful shadow puppet videos — as well as several more clever additions: footage of the Survival Research Laboratory’s 2004 performance at the former Post gallery downtown, in which massive robotic machines were maneuvered by remote to destroy one another; Matt Mullican’s Live Under Hypnosis, a 2002 video of a performance undertaken while under the sway of a hypnotist; and Paul McCarthy’s simultaneously hilarious and horrifying 1995 video Painter, in which the artist, looking like a puppet himself in layers of costume, prosthetics and other goo, stumbles through an exceedingly (and characteristically) messy pantomime of the creative process.
A show about puppetry, which is composed primarily of static objects, however, puts itself at an immediate disadvantage: If the magic is in the transformation — the shift from inanimate to animate — then the objects themselves are only half the equation. Those binoculars, had they been sitting on a pedestal, would have merely been binoculars, done up with a little ribbon, and though most of these pieces were intended as artworks in their own right, the effect in this context — when held up against the framework of theatrical production — is much the same. Even otherwise fine pieces, like Kiki Smith’s Nuit, a 1992 installation of human limbs, cast in plaster and hanging from the ceiling, feel stilted and inert. The videos add an element of animation; fixed as they are, however, in boxy, plywood partitions, they have a curiously sculptural presence as well, and seem a dismaying step removed from the real thing.
There are two notable exceptions — works that don’t merely echo or mimic this quality of transformation but fundamentally embody it. One is What Will Come, a 2007 video installation by the South African William Kentridge, an artist with much experience in the realm of experimental theater, and whose particular fusion of invention and sensitivity is emblematic of the best contemporary puppetry. This particular piece involves animated video footage that is projected downward onto a table and reflected in the metallic surface of a cylinder that occupies the center of the table, such that the marks and smudges of the projection cohere into imagery (stars, faces, airplanes, a merry-go-round) only in the curve of the reflection — a magical effect. The other is Mike Kelley’s 1992 Gussied Up, a sculptural installation in which various pieces of furniture — a bed frame, a straight-back chair, a coffee table — have been neatly but awkwardly fitted with doll clothes. Simultaneously banal and illogical, this one takes a minute to sink in, but assumes, when it does, an almost terrible poignancy, evoking a panoply of associations surrounding childhood, fear, need, comfort and imagination.
On the whole, “The Puppet Show”has the air of a project conceived primarily on paper, its connections hinging on idea rather than experience or instinct, and its highlights largely incidental. In mulling over the concept, for instance, “why puppets matter now,” the show’s brochure waxes abstract: “Puppets embody questions of control and the freedom to act,” it reads. “The loss of individual and collective agency to corporate interests; the erosion of civil rights, government by outside forces: the imagery of puppets points to certain social and political conditions that loom large today.” It’s true, perhaps — even interesting, in a grad-school seminar sort of way — but nothing compared to the thrill of seeing a life emerge from a pair of binoculars.
Whatever its role as an influence on contemporary art (significant but piecemeal is the suggestion at SMMOA), puppetry is a thriving field in itself, especially in Los Angeles, thanks to the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts at CalArts, the Manual Archives, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Velaslavasay Panorama and other sympathetic institutions. The best you could take from this exhibition is the inspiration to venture closer to the source. Fortunately, the museum offers several opportunities in coming weeks, with a screening, on July 19, of Sandow Birk and Sean Meredith’s gorgeously vernacular puppet film version of Dante’s Inferno, and two evenings of original performances on July 26 and August 2, featuring works by Susan Simpson, Janie Geiser, Laura Heit and others.
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One of the more memorable photographs in Kori Newkirk’s midcareer survey at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem) depicts the L.A.-based artist in a crisp white shirt and tie, lying on a patch of grass with his arm slung across his face. It is a deliciously mysterious image, seductive and intimate, even tender, but also closed, private and inscrutable. Asked by curator Thelma Golden in an interview in the catalog what he’s “talking about” when he uses his body in his work, he replies: “My place in the world — whatever that means and wherever that is. My place in society as a black man. I tend not to want to be identified as an individual in the photographic self-portraits. I feel there are larger issues than me being addressed, even if I was not able to identify them. ... It speaks to much larger archetypes.” It is the body employed, one might say, as a sort of marionette, an object on par with other objects, all in Newkirk’s case conscientiously refined and ideologically loaded: a beaded braid, a basketball, a white shark, a snowflake.
With some 30 works in all — photographs, sculptures, a wall painting of a Cadillac fashioned in pomade, and a selection of the handsome beaded curtain landscapes for which he’s best known — the show gives a coherent picture of Newkirk’s taut, highly focused oeuvre thus far. The most beguiling, to my mind, are these works involving the body, and particularly the two recent videos: Bixel (2005), in which we see Newkirk cavorting through a grassy, pastoral landscape, nude but for a shimmering jockstrap — it is a fluid, magnificent composition in green (grass), blue (sky), black (skin) and silver (glitter of various sorts) — and Titan (2007), in which Newkirk is shuffling down a dark city street wound in a tangle of illuminated plastic tubing and rattling IV carts. Sharp as the earlier work is, conceptually and politically, these videos point to the promise of the ongoing generational shift, the continued integration and interrogation of the identity politics movement of the ’80s and ’90s, of which Newkirk is a pivotal figure: a shift from the plainly symbolic to the elliptically suggestive and strange.
THE PUPPET SHOW | Santa Monica Museum of Art | 2525 Michigan Ave., G1, Santa Monica | (310) 586-6488 | www.smmoa.org | Through Aug. 9
KORI NEWKIRK: 1997-2007 | Pasadena Museum of California Art | 490 East Union St., Pasadena | (626) 568-3665 | www.pmcaonline.org | Through Sept. 14