Neo-Gothic Brain Transplant; Menacing ’Frostydickfantasy’
A doll receives a brain transplant in a tailor shop, and a crucified pocket watch spews viscera -- welcome to the romantic-grotesque world of the Quay Brothers.
These are scenes from their 1986 film “Street of Crocodiles,” which put the identical twins on the map.
Stephen and Timothy Quay, born in 1947 in Pennsylvania and longtime Londoners, are best known as neo-Gothic fabulists who create psychosexual and surreal stop-motion animations employing antiquated puppets, dolls, stuffed animals and machinery.
The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective, “Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets,” exhibits a full range of their multifaceted work -- from designs for theater, opera, dance, posters and book and record-album covers to television commercials, experimental films and music videos, such as Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”
A dark, cramped, labyrinthine funhouse installed on two floors, the show’s main attractions are the roughly seven hours of film, projected across walls and unspooled in tight corners and mini-theaters, and the actual puppets, props and decors -- small stage-set dioramas in which the movies came to life.
Inspiration for their work comes from the Victorian wonderlands of Joseph Cornell, the mystical dreamscapes of Odilon Redon, the macabre mise-en-scenes of Hieronymus Bosch, Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer, the films of Luis Bunuel and the literature of Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe.
Yet their primary influence, unfortunately, is Salvador Dali’s melting clocks -- a celebration of the ambiguous and illogical imagery of dreams.
As weird, entertaining and fastidious as their work is, there is little here that is truly original or even surprising. Overall, it represents a rehashing of the most mundane of Surrealist sensibilities -- an inherited mannerism in which eccentricity stands in for poetry and mystery.
Andre Masson, one of Surrealism’s founders, saw it coming: “The meeting of the umbrella and the sewing-machine on the operating table happened only once,” he wrote in 1944. “Traced, repeated over and over again, mechanized, the unusual vulgarizes itself.”
Four of John Chamberlain’s large, whimsical abstract sculptures are currently enlivening the plaza of the Seagram Building (designed by Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe).
Unlike the robust metal sculptures crafted out of his signature junkyard material -- cut and crushed automotive parts, particularly chrome bumpers -- Chamberlain (1927-2011) originally fashioned the Seagram grouping at tabletop scale out of crumpled household aluminum foil.
Twisting like vines, flaring like horns, these looping, tubular works suggest a cross between futuristic flora and Dr. Seuss contraptions.
“ROBUSTFAGOTTO” (2008), like a pitcher winding up on the mound, and “PINEAPPLESURPRISE” (2010), which resembles the head of Medusa on the body of a giant snail, both shine like new pennies.
Coiled like a snake, “MERMAIDSMISCHIEF” (2009) gleams metallic green. And the menacing “FROSTYDICKFANTASY” (2008), in cool silver, sprouts enormous cleavers, flippers or wings.
Though not Chamberlain’s strongest, these sculptures add spry, colorful counterpoint to Johnson and Mies’s monument to corporate modernism.
“John Chamberlain,” presented by Gagosian Gallery, runs through Nov. 16 at the Park Avenue plaza outside the Seagram Building, 375 Park Ave. Information: +1-212-744-2313; http://www.gagosian.com.
Abstract Expressionism’s macho, clubhouse mentality is often cited as the primary reason more mid-20th-century American women artists were not recognized in their time and still remain undervalued.
Yeshiva University Museum’s compact survey of Ruth Abrams (1912-1986), aims to revive the reputation of a painter who, though at the center of the New York School, is all but forgotten.
Abrams’s career is presented here through approximately 30 abstractions, still lifes, interiors, landscapes, figure paintings and collages.
There is also a short cosmic film, “Paradox of the Big” (1974), and groupings from her “Microcosm” series -- tiny landscape fragments and abstract oil studies on paper.
Expressionism and domesticity, figuration and abstraction all flow easily into one another, and the show reveals a competent individualist who embraced both the New York School and European Modernism.
In “Conversation in Corfu” (1983-85), Pierre Bonnard’s fire pours through an open window, threatening to envelop its inhabitants.
Studies of Fire Island recall Helen Frankenthaler and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Other works pay homage to Fernand Leger, Georges Rouault and Abrams’s teacher Arshile Gorky.
But it will take a larger, better-chosen retrospective to make the case that Abrams is more than another among many second-tier members of the New York School.
“Microcosms: Ruth Abrams, Abstract Expressionist” runs through Jan. 6 at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St. Information: +1-212-294-8330; http://www.yumuseum.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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