Let It Happen

You know Robert Beatty’s album covers. Now meet his psychedelic video art.


It might be fair to say that the music videos and shorts of Kentucky-based artist Robert Beatty are deeply nostalgic. They’re certainly steeped in the aesthetics of the Sixties — psychedelic culture — and Eighties — early video games and video art — but as with the best neo-psych-rock bands (the Soft Boys, Spacemen 3), it would be more accurate to say that Beatty is picking up on some unfinished business. His video work remains in the shadow of his popular album artwork. Profiles of him in the Washington Post and on Pitchfork don’t even mention the former, although it’s safe to say that if he were directing videos for the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala instead of just designing their album covers, that aspect of his oeuvre would receive more attention. His graphic design, which relies heavily on digital airbrushing, is far slicker than his videos, which exhibit a digital-thrift-store aesthetic, a fascination with the bent lines of video artist Lillian Schwartz, and the boxy imagery of Atari games like Pong and Breakout. Excessive juxtapositions of color and geometric forms is a Beatty constant, yet he also managed to create an elegiac video for electronic-soul performer Lonnie Holley by piling visual noise over images of Holley playing keyboards. (His music videos are devoid of guys lip-syncing while pretending to play guitars.) Anthology Film Archives’ monthly Show & Tell program has assembled a ten-short program that will culminate in a live performance by the man himself, who plays in three different bands.

Beatty’s video for “China Bull,” by his one-man band, Three Legged Race, layers hand-drawn faces over images of tapestries and knickknacks — it could have been shot in an actual, well-stocked junk shop. Here, Beatty achieves great impact from stylized color and lighting, juxtaposing wild reds, greens, and yellows. The animated imagery evokes Sixties underground comics, but there’s no narrative focus, also suggesting a bored teenager’s doodling. Kenneth Anger’s eldritch vibe looms behind it, but there’s no occult ritual going on, just an exploration of a space existing partly in fantasy and partly in reality. Although I have no idea if Beatty is interested in psychedelic drugs (he never addresses the subject in the interviews I’ve read), he makes the experiences they can facilitate palpable through cinema.

The most recent video from Beatty included in this program, On Fillmore’s “Jornada Inteiro,” gives some idea where he’s headed. It seems to be a combination of filmed footage of flashing colored lights with animation added in postproduction. A few different motifs — heads (a Beatty favorite), hands, squiggly four-sided forms, airplanes, red and purple circles — are introduced and quickly combine in complex ways. The heads appear and erase themselves from the screen, in a possible play on the concept of “head music.”


Show & Tell: Robert Beatty

May 26, 8 p.m.

Anthology Film Archives