“We’re made of star stuff.” —Carl Sagan
Death is often just the beginning; oblivion takes a while. But as Walkers: Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact, the Museum of the Moving Image’s auspicious foray into exhibiting contemporary art, wryly suggests, it might be film and its iconic images that help stave off decay.
Joining over a hundred works by 40 artists and auteurs (Richard Prince, Gregory Crewdson, John Stezaker, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnieszka Kurant) with scores of ephemera from decades of Hollywood (film scripts, lobby cards, production designs, set photos), Walkers is a little bit Hollywood and a little bit art world. So, fractured photo works by Stezaker are framed above vitrines of Psycho production ephemera. Cases containing publicity materials for the great British actor Charles Laughton share a room with Douglas Gordon’s ghoulish “Self-Portrait of You + Me (Dean Martin 01),” in which Martin’s eyes are burnt out to leave a mirror’s jarring reflection behind. Walkers is keen, leveling, and calculated, using its visual artists as a way of drawing attention to the influence and artistry of film.
There has been a huge exchange between the two mediums, Walkers points out; they’re not conflated, however. The connection is more of a two-way street, pairing art inspired by Hollywood with the art that Hollywood produced. (Hollywood also happily draws from art.) In fact, it’s a two-way street in time too, as the exhibition looks both backwards and forwards, from what did get made to what might have been. Walkers, as its title might suggest to the pop-culture munchers among us, is meta-minded — stocked with allusions, doublings, and an expanding hierarchy of meaning. The exhibition has its own soundtrack, the halls and rooms echoing with songs that either reference films — The Beastie Boy’s “High Plains Drifter,” Jack Bruce’s “Theme for an Imaginary Western” — or have been indelibly bound to them — Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.” Pretty much every one of show’s 11 sections has a punny title: “still lives’; “infinite jest(s)”; “good to be mcqueen”; “dial m for meta.”
Walkers rewards both close looking and wandering. Study the Dr. Strangelove script, for example — the one featuring a pie fight at the end of days that Kubrick and company cut from the final film — and it might make you consider that Heart of Darkness movie that Orson Wells never made, which artist Fiona Banner created retrospective posters for, hanging just feet away. Or that Heart of Darkness movie that Francis Ford Coppola did make, from which Walkers has production sketches. There’s a big tent feeling to the show that makes both film and art seem larger and more interconnected than usual. To be fair, Walkers is also more meta than the typical art exhibition. If you’re generous or susceptible, you can follow these liminal connections to and fro, shuffling between what (amazingly) did happen and what (amazingly) could have. Guest curator and scholar Robert M. Rubin is obviously film-mad, but he also has a bit of a mad scientist in him. He’s tracked down these arcane tidbits and disparate artists, connected the dots, and then deliberately rearranged them to form a deconstructed movie of their own (with soundtrack, camera, actors, scripts, production designs, set photos).
Fundamentally, this is a survey of how old Hollywood film lives on in a postmodern, digital age. For over half a century, cinema was arguably the greatest cultural, social, and artistic force in the world, with Hollywood as one of its most industrious contributors. What happens to all that force and energy when it’s left (nominally) in the past?
Artists — and the internet — gobble it up. Frequently featured, Richard Prince and his cheeky, trenchant critique of mass media make a good fit for the show. One easily missed set of works pairs a signed publicity photo of Chase Masterson (of Deep Space Nine fame) with a photograph by Cindy Sherman, from her seminal Untitled Film Stills series. Both images are autographed to Prince, with Masterson writing a stock thank you in one and, in the other, Prince himself co-opting Sherman’s script. In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Rubin notes how the two flicker with meaning, particularly in this pairing:
Prince signs it from her [Sherman] to himself, as if it were a stock publicity photo rather than an “artwork” … Cindy is in character, Chase is out of character. Cindy stars in imagined movies, Chase in actual science fiction television.
By the fourth time Prince’s work shows up, however, it’s as if he’s become a relentless killer from a slasher film, back for another wry deconstruction. (Rubin previously curated Richard Prince: American Prayer at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in 2011, in which he also mixed art [Prince’s] and ephemera. It’s a small sample, but Prince seems to be Rubin’s leading man.) Gregory Crewdson also shows up, in a surprisingly stripped-down style: unglamorous photos of the derelict spaces at Cinecittà, Italy’s major film studio–cum–amusement park. For cinema-heads, there are bound to be a few special pleasures in the show, and mine is Jeff Desom’s “Hitch.” Editing together all the moment’s of Jimmy Stewart’s (and Alfred Hitchcock’s) backyard voyeurism from Rear Window into a seamless, controllable time-lapse, Desom lets you be Jimmy (and Hitch) for a while and go behind the window (and the camera).
Other standout works include Michel Gondry’s downright charming sweded version of Taxi Driver; Gregory Chatonsky’s Google Maps–directed tour of Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Alex Israel’s luminous and lovely painted evocation of artifice, skies, and cinema, “Sky Backdrop“; and John Divola’s remarkable found photos of studio sets — continuity images that were once used to make sure their imaginary places remained the same from shot to shot, but which now seem like uncanny glimpses of Hollywood’s latent, enduring fantasy. Their effect is akin to that of the mounted animals at the Museum of Natural History, frozen but vivid, caught between being and nothing. Conceptually driven, Walkers is also a surprisingly good, if crowded, group show, a healthy mix of styles, mediums, and moviedom.
What’s also surprising is the the absence of female artists and filmic wonders like Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Louise Brooks, as well as the almost complete absence of horror — no Frankenstein, no vampires, no Lon Chaney (Jr. or Sr.). On the one hand, with its 11 sections, Walkers seems exhaustive; on the other, it can seem lacking. The problem with the exhibit’s discriminating and sharp and (obliquely personal) conceptualism is that it calls attention to its particular choices, to what it includes and excludes. Walkers flirts with being overly determined, cool, and clean, a tad too un-self-critical, despite being so self-aware and choosy.
Ultimately, however, the show’s playfulness, intelligence, and breadth of work save it from straying into ironic detachment. Walkers gamely contends that celluloid cinema’s lingering body still moves, animated by a singular artistic force. Perhaps a sequel will add other layers to the story — layers that, while not invited the first time around, are still waiting for their close-up at the museum.
Walkers: Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact continues at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens) through April 10.
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