Stop. Move. And Again.

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Thomas Edison, "Fun in a Bake Shop," film still, 1902.

Stop motion lends itself to stilted narratives about creativity. Some of the earliest films for which the frame-by-frame technique was used tell stories about eccentric characters making something almost as eccentric as themselves. In Thomas Edison’s 1902 project, Fun in a Bakery, a baker smothers a rat he sees with a glob of dough, then proceeds to sculpt that dough into a robust face; for some reason, his effort gets him thrown headfirst into a barrel of flour by other men in baker’s hats. In J. Stuart Blackton’s 1907 film, The Haunted Hotel, a table is set by invisible hands that go on to create an exquisite, frightening evening for a tired traveler.

Blum & Poe’s current exhibition, called Stop. Move., attempts to show that this storied, low-tech medium is just as possibility-rich today as it was a century ago, or at least as compelling. It includes four artists, three based in Berlin (at least part of the time) and one based in Los Angeles. Each has been given a single darkened gallery space, and the films by Hirsch Perlman, Robin Rhode, and Nathalie Djurberg are projected onto a single wall, while Matt Saunders’ three-channel installation takes up two additional walls and occupies Blum & Poe’s biggest gallery. Because three of four films have soundtracks, the music that bleed from one gallery to the next become a tainted cohesive, causing the work to mingle and mesh in unexpected ways–the Johnny Cash and Miles Davis tracks paired with Perlman’s film add to the comic effect of Rhode’s work, while Djurberg’s music makes everything else in the show more portentous.

Matt Saunders, "Kuhle Wampe Bikes 108," Edition of 3, 2010. Courtesy of Harris Lieberman Gallery, New York.

Something about the Stop. Move. feels old, and while this has to do with stop motion’s datedness and visual simplicity, it also has to do with the fact that the artists have chosen to present fairly basic, unencumbered narratives. This isn’t a bad thing, and the exhibition’s two most engrossing works narrate stories about creativity that fails. In Robin Rhode’s Canon, a man wearing a sweat suit and red beanie sketches a television on a blank white wall. He then spends the duration of the film trying to “kill” his sketch, by shooting and then exploding it. The problem is that each weapon he draws quickly dissolves into a dirty sea of abstract marks or disappears altogether. Finally, giving up on the canon he’s tried to use, he drags a canon ball across the wall, manhandling it until it collisides with the television. This sort of frustrated effort to make something (or make something work) translates beautifully to the “start, stop and repeat” nature of stop motion.  And even if Rhode’s experiment in failure does veer a bit close to William Kentridge’s charcoal-drenched, foible-filled approach to animation (an acknowledged influence), his nonchalance sets him apart.

Nathalie Djurberg, Still from "We are not two, we are one," clay animation, digital video 5:33, Edition of 4, 2008. Music by Hans Berg. Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Giò Marconi, Milan.

Nathalie Djurberg, Still from "We are not two, we are one," clay animation, digital video 5:33, Edition of 4, 2008. Music by Hans Berg. Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Giò Marconi, Milan.

Nathalie Djurberg’s We are not two, we are one steals the show with its lyrically tender weirdness. The Swedish artist’s claymation always feels like the perverse version of Wallace and Grommit; it has a visual wholesomeness that its subject matter totally destabilizes. In this film, a wolf with a slight blond girl growing out of his lower spine navigates a kitchen, making some sort of meal. At first, wolf and girl seem to coexist effectively, though the she tends to pick up after him and finish tasks he starts. Yet the wolf becomes progressively less considerate, and the film ends with both characters naked, battered and in tears. The ever-increasing intensity of Hans Berg’s music, composed specifically for this film, enhances the story line’s formidability, making you feel always on the brink of panic. The characters never finish making their dinner, and the kitchen is left a mess.

It’s not necessarily clear how the four artists in  Stop. Motion. inform each other, but sometimes such  looseness is okay. In the end, the exhibition seems to suggest what we already knew: any medium, wielded by a clever and thoughtful maker can be a success. That stop motion is a strategy artists continue to explore simply means they are keeping their options open.