Curioser and Curioser: The Art of the Quay Brothers

I never really know how I feel about the Brothers Quay? Their artistry is Victorian in perfection. Their ability to create an eerie, spooky mood is unrivaled across all media. They have somehow managed to quietly bridge the gap between commercial, art, and film in a way I don't really get- a space few are allowed to inhabit. Yet the tales they tend towards are a bit too murky and amorphous for me sometimes....not enough content, or humor, or something? A style over a substance that I think is good for those learning about the creative process but a bit lacking for those immersed in it...or maybe I am just not the type of person who can't subsist off mood alone? But, with that said, they are probably the best at this said mood creation, and also some of the most meticulous animators around... so after seeing the current retrospective of their work, titled On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, at the Museum of Modern Art in NY this week I think many of my reservations about their surface-y feel have subsided and been replaced by an awe for their supreme craft and ability to cast a shadow of a feeling that can loom over and resonate with a wide-ranging audience.

I was curious about how someone would frame an exhibit of the Quay Brothers. So sweeping a career but so straightforward a trajectory (supportive creative parents, art school, graphic design, artistic recognition) that I couldn't imagine organizing their work in a chronological fashion given their sort of honest path. A content or stylistic overview seemed like a no go too since so much of their work is commercial in nature, as did organizing by media since they do everything from the darkest, tiny lines of charcoal drawings to stop-motion documentaries exploring obscure antique collections. The exhibition did sort of progress chronologically beginning with a brief biography of the twins (their bonded-ness a little unnerving), the formation of their intense creative partnership as children in Pennsylvania, exposing their many influences, crossing the ocean to the Royal College of Art in London and, at the age of 18, being swept immediately into record design, book cover design, poster, stage- every type of commercial outlet you can imagine. Then there were music videos, television commercials (one pasted at bottom!)- all while still managing to cultivate their own mild artistic voice spoken in a massive artistic vision on a small, perfected stage teeming with antiquated broken dolls and medical anomalies. And then this is where the show got me: the film sets.

Despite being phenomenal animators- very, very skilled, detailed animators who understand movement, form and frame rate in such an inhuman, calculated way- it was seeing the elaborate detail in their set designs and characters that gave their essence a moment to reflect upon. The seams, the craft, the littlest of detail- throughout the exhibit often magnified through giant lenses inset in boxes and cases holding the scaled down sets- were all held for a moment in space and time to let you marvel at the thought that goes into each split second that normally just blows by in their intensely created stop motion animations. Watching people peer into, basically, three dimensional film stills, stills of such intricate pieces, made me feel like the onlookers could truly get a sense of the amount of work and precision that animation auteurs go through to execute and express their obsessive, frame-by-frame minds. Stooping down to glimpse into a box that revealed a sculptural scene of a moonlit forest, with chunky red beads made blood pouring from the open wound of a porcelain doll-like figure in the foreground, made me look at these tableaus as just that: stills from a spooky storybook land where the elements are loosely symbolic but the feeling, and materials alone, inspire a not so far out of reach ability to create. I'm not saying that anyone can do what the Quay's do by any means but, I do think that their practice is one that is influenced by others, taking from other artists (Polish animation, naturalists, Russian posters etc.) and creating a new image that is equally as accessible to those inspired by their work....and when thinking of their sort of aesthetic collaging it only makes sense that this show would be mounted now as the internet generation of creatives constantly embrace this kind of practice, imbuing their own meaning onto things, fashioning ones own image of the world out of many others.

In practical terms: The layout of the show was....not the best. Half hidden in the basement/film theater of MoMA and half in a cluttered feeling gallery, it didn't make for the best viewing environment for the Quay's films. As someone who has worked in the (labor intensive, muscle aching) field of animation I would have loved to see each film next to the sets, see the split-second product that comes from all the hours of work. I also think the impact of their films would have been greater had the show had, simply, less stuff. At one point, upon watching an early paper cut out animation of trapeze artists dangling in the air, watching it on a small screen in a weird triangular viewing area, I couldn't even find the title through the cluttered walls of things and work. I know that the overwhelming catalogue of the Quay's is part of the reason they had this show, exposing their massive portfolio to a huge audience, but I also know that giving viewers space and time to reflect on the multitude of components involved in each piece is a respectful thing that I wish had been the case... The magnifying glasses positioned against the film sets in the show did point out the painstaking work that the Quays subject themselves to- true animating masochists- but giving the viewer time and physical space to think more about what makes these artists artists, to appreciate their craft, is a thing I think all art shows in major museums should take into consideration and have been letting slide in the mega-show mentality of late...more might draw in the crowds but less will lead to a more thoughtful, culturally enriched world, one frame at a time.

Once again I obeyed the "no photos" policy out of respect of the show....but I did yank all these pics from the internet Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets. Film schedule: Here. Aug. 12th 2012-Jan.7th 2013. Museum of Modern Art. 11W 53rd St. btwn 5th & 6th/NY, NY/10019. Hours/Tickets: Here.



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.