Best in Show: The Spook Brothers

'Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets'

For those who grew up watching the cheerfully moralistic stop-motion animation of Gumby, Davey and Goliath, and those Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, seeing the Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles in the late 1980s was nothing less than culture shock. Inspired by Polish writer Bruno Schulz's fantastical recollections of boyhood, the film follows a gaunt, hollow-eyed puppet (suggestive of Schulz himself) into a decrepit urban netherworld, where, in a tailor's shop, creepy half-skulled dolls perform a ritualistic operation on his body and head. The 21-minute short, all without dialogue and accompanied by haunting music, firmly established twins Timothy and Stephen as masters of a distinct and dark expressionism—a style fully explored in this captivating MOMA retrospective of a remarkably enduring partnership.

Arranged more or less chronologically, the exhibit reveals an early fascination with the macabre in a number of pencil sketches, some of them reminiscent of Edward Gorey's work. In Fantasy—Penalty for a Missed Goal (1968), a soccer player scurries away from a field, having escaped a hanging but not the amputation of his foot. The stark and gloomy A Fratricide by Franz Kafka (1970) features a knife-wielding murderer looming above his victim—a precursor to Ein Brudermord (1981), one of the Quays' first puppet films, which turns the stabbing into an act of shocking brutality. Later graphic design for book covers of edgy titles like Céline's Castle to Castle demonstrates a visual anxiety that would manifest itself in projects for the screen.

The pair became full-time filmmakers in 1980, when a producer arranged commissions (some funded by the BBC) to create five animated documentaries (all screening here) on subjects that include Punch and Judy, Igor Stravinsky, and the surrealist Jan Svankmajer. The formats are marvelously unconventional. Puppets of various types—paper assemblages, dolls, and cobbled-together figures—cavort across shadowy, angular backgrounds, mixing the aesthetics of Weimar cinema with constructivism's boldness; biographical information, minimally narrated, is secondary to the Quay trademark of spooky fantasy.

I'm your puppet: from 1986's Street of Crocodiles
Courtesy the filmmakers/MOMA
I'm your puppet: from 1986's Street of Crocodiles

Details

'Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets'
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
Through January 7

Yossi Milo Gallery
245 Tenth Avenue
212-414-0370, yossimilo.com
Through August 31

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That vision is evident in everything theatrical the brothers have done, all of it on view: dance dramas, stage design, music videos, and even television commercials. A public service spot on AIDS and a 30-second ad for Rice Krispies Treats create similarly unnerving dream states. But the films are the duo's most intensely imagined efforts; they're immersive journeys into nightmare, assembled with meticulously designed sequences and scenery. (The original miniature sets on display demonstrate an extraordinary level of detail.) The agitated composition of Maska—quick cuts between demon-like puppets, shot in flickering light—turns one of Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi fables into a tale of horror, ramping up the fright by synchronizing action with a searing orchestral piece by the great Krzysztof Penderecki. Likewise, in the heartbreaking Absentia, a freaky electronic score from iconoclast Karlheinz Stockhausen plays over scenes of a terrifying asylum where, surrounded by animated objects, a woman writes letter after letter containing the endlessly repeated plea "sweetheart, come." Based on the real story of Emma Hauck, the portrait of madness might be the most visceral you'll ever see.

Matthew Brandt: 'The Skin We're In'

Mixing conceptualism and process art, Matthew Brandt's work brings ironic humor to nature. In one series, silk-screened versions of a picture taken in Yosemite National Park use everyday household goods as ink; the layered CMYK colors of Froot Loops, mouthwash, and toothpaste depict an iconic location with the detritus of consumerism. On the opposite wall, parts of bees (collected during the widespread "colony collapse") were used as an actual emulsion in an old-fashioned and complicated printing process, resurrecting the insects into images of lively swarms.

There's similar wit in an adjacent group show, which plays with notions of appropriation and reproduction. Jon Rafman has cleverly projected modernist paintings onto ordinary spaces; in Franz Kline Starbucks, heavy black strokes cover the coffee shop's walls and floor, a compelling improvement on the chain's bland decor. Elsewhere, reflecting those sudden eruptions of gun-nut violence, two lushly rendered forest scenes, which bring to mind work by Thomas Cole, turn out to be images extracted from a kill-'em-all video game.

 
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