When people ask John Frame what his work is about, the curators of “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale: Sculpture and Story by John Frame” write in the show's catalog, “he feels that the real answer should be that it isn't about anything. That is not to say that the work is meaningless, rather that it carries the meaning in its own ways and on its own terms.”
The particular 'works' the curators are referring to are not the sculptures this California artist started producing in the early 1980s, when he first emerged as a historically and literary-minded figurative artist, but a collection of movable, posable dolls, stages and props that Frame has been working at since 2006 out in his idyllic home studio in Wrightwood, deep in the Angeles National Forest.
Frame's dolls have been placed and posed in carefully designed dioramas that are on display at the Huntington Library until June 27, along with some photographs and two short films. One is an amateurish documentary about Frame's creative process, and the other comprises a few fragments of an in-progress sprawling film called The Tale of the Crippled Boy, starring the aforementioned dolls.
There's a long tradition of Los Angeles assemblage art, one that includes well-known Frame pieces like Strapping Boy from 1995. The dioramas, encased in glass and dramatically lit, also somehow evoke Joseph Cornell boxes, although they're much less poetic. Here's the problem: Frame comes from the high-art museum world and he might claim that his ongoing project carries its meaning 'in its own ways and on its own terms.' His splendid isolation in his amazing forest pad, as seen in the documentary, might shelter him from pop culture.
But the most suitable points of reference for the Huntington exhibit would be Mark Romanek's 1994 video for Nine Inch Nails' “Closer,” the amazing, intricate stop-motion animation films of Jan Svankmajer or the world of steampunk. To put it in another way: None of the pieces in “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale” would look out of place in an art-directed mixology bar, or the film fragments on a Marilyn Manson video from the '90s.
The flow between high art and pop culture is a constant back and forth and it's likely that Frame's earlier work was a big influence on some of the current popular manifestations of an obsession with wooden computers, outdated aviator goggles or stop-motion medievalisms. Some of the best-achieved effects on Frame's film — like the ticker tape that comes out of the rabbit-eared Mr. R's mouth representing speech — are clever interpretations of a pre-modern or early-modern folk sensibility, like those of the French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Frame has an elaborate narrative, supposedly revealed to him in a mystical dream, that he wants to convey in the finished film, which is still in progress. He has referred to the film as a kind of sci-fi story of the future as imagined by 16th-century villagers.
As it stands, five years in the making, the project now is just a collection of objects not that different from what, in other contexts, are already a kind of cliché. As the wondrous Jan Svankmajer's creations have shown, even these old-timey dolls and mutant gewgaws can be infused with life and story. Perhaps the day Frame reconsiders and decides to make his work about something, we'll get the intriguing narrative the current show only faintly hints at.