Walking into the darkened gallery that contains the first artworks in Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s ambitious exhibition “Screen Play: Life in an Animated World” is like accidentally channel-surfing into someone else’s nightmare.
A 2009 “still life” by Jason Salavon featuring the slowly morphing skull of a baboon next to a candlestick hangs on one wall, not far from a floor projection of human bodies tumbling from the sky. On another wall, Nathalie Djurberg has used crude claymation to animate Fragonard’s famous painting “The Swing” into a sinister story involving a Sondheim-esque pursuit through the frightening woods, a group of terrified rabbits and a row of jagged teeth.
As you tread deeper into the anxiety machine that constitutes this monumental show’s opening salvo, the atmosphere grows stranger and even more unsettling: Two gorgeously produced animations by Allison Schulnik show bulbous, vaguely human figures made of putty dissolve into pools of oil paint and reconstitute themselves into still, more disconcerting forms. Camille Henrot’s “Dying Living Woman,” from 2005, features an excerpt from George Romero’s classic film “Night of the Living Dead” in which the heroine’s figure has been meticulously scratched out and replaced with a vibrating ghost.
Martha Colburn’s 2008 collage-based animation “Triumph of the Wild” is a terrifying fantasia on American history filled with violence and fraught with episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder. And elsewhere in the gallery – with oases of calm strategically scattered throughout – the apocalyptic visions continue: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaotao’s 34-minute animation of a crumbling cities; Marco Brambilla’s utterly engrossing 3-D animation of popular culture tropes scattered throughout a post-apocalyptic vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch; a remarkable 2014 stop-motion film by the young Quebequois artist Charles LaVoie in which a man physically disintegrates while attempting to eat a bowl of carrot soup.
Which is all to say: This exhibition, which pulls together dozens of works by artists from around the world who are using animation to test and expand the boundaries of art, is scary good.
The organizers of the exhibition, Albright-Knox Deputy Director Joe Lin-Hill and curators Cathleen Chaffee and Holly E. Hughes, clearly undertook their task with an eye toward establishing animation’s place in art history. Indeed, the first dozen or so works in the exhibition add up to a convincing argument about the way artists are using animation as a bridge between the static world of painting or sculpture and the much more complex and dynamic universe of digital art.
From Salavon’s not-quite-still-life and Schulnik’s painterly strokes and visible fingerprints to Miao Xiaochun’s attempt to view important historical paintings from several angles at once in his 2012 installation “Out of Nothing,” the exhibition overflows with attempts to transmute classic analog forms into timeless digital ones.
But not everything in “Screen Play,” mercifully, is so self-conscious about its place in the grand sweep of art history. Some artists are clearly ready to jettison any traditional notions and leap off into completely new territory.
A perfect case in point is Ryan Trecartin’s 2013 film “Item Falls,” which according to a description “takes place in a post-human future revolving around a dystopian university-cum-gaming system.” The 25-minute long piece features quick cuts and scattered pieces of absurdist millennial dialog – “Last time I went to Middle Earth, I hated it,” one character says with practiced ennui. In its humorous way, the piece envisions a time when computer programs actually adopt the kinds of constructed personas and personalities that Internet culture has created in young digital natives. If that idea seems a bit too meta or a bit esoteric, it will become clear in the process of watching. Trecartin’s piece deserves its own room.
Another highlight of the exhibition is a room dedicated entirely to the animated films of South African artist William Kentridge, each of them an anxiety-riddled meditation on life in South Africa before and after apartheid. Elsewhere, Tabor Robak’s 14-screen installation “A*” overwhelms with its fusion of video game logic and dreamlike scenes of caged animals, mutated flesh and snowy landscapes, while Oliver Laric’s untitled piece takes viewers on a fascinating journey through 100 years of animated characters.
There is much more of note in this show that defies description, some of it simply beautiful rather than groundbreaking or terror-inspiring, and it’s worth at least two trips to take it all in. Three grandiose films from the Russian art collective AES+F screening in the gallery’s auditorium, for example, seem worthy of their own visit.
Having spent about four hours taking in the dizzying variety of the animations on view at the gallery, it strikes me as one of the more daring and therefore thrilling shows in the institution’s recent history. Together with its excellent digital catalog – available to download for free on iPads and Android tablets – “Screen Play” is the latest piece of evidence that the gallery remains committed to exploring, and sometimes even inhabiting, the vanguard of contemporary art.