William Kentridge’s Stereoscope

Last weekend I returned to the Henry to check out the new exhibits, but primarily as their William Kentridge show was closing the next week.  The last week of shows are always packed so I wanted to catch it while I’d have a chance to experience it in better conditions.  There clearly were plenty of others thinking like me as there was a good crowd, but it was never packed or distracting.  The Henry being part of the University of Washington is free to its students and there clearly were a number of them coming in and doing things for class.  The exhibit took up four of the rooms on the upper floor of the gallery, two of them blocked off with curtains to allow for projection of two of his animations. The initial, largest room contained primarily works on paper but also a half dozen small sculptures and a couple of mixed media pieces.  The fourth room contained more works on paper, primarily images used in various animations, but an independent series and a mixed media piece of a medicine cabinet with an animation playing inside of it.

William Kentridge Preparing the Flute (tondo)

William Kentridge Preparing the Flute (tondo)

Kentridge’s style is more representational then most of the art that’d make up my short list of favorites, but I’ve found myself quite drawn to a lot of his pieces.  The rough and ready nature of how he lays down his lines feels to me a lot like the direct nature of the abstract expressionists even as they are used to sketch out recognizable forms. In many cases it is only the forms that are recognizable, almost like shadows, while the details and parts are total abstractions.  Of course not all of his pieces appeal, but that is pretty much always the case.  Of his works on paper, the more mixed media ones really appealed to me.  Appropriating old encyclopedia pages, creating sculptures out of corkscrews, his use of text in abstract and concrete ways, using deprecated techniques such as stereoscopes, this all added power to each piece.

William Kentridges Medusa

William Kentridge's Medusa

One of my favorite pieces is the pictured above Medusa, which had a fully reflective cylinder placed in the middle.  Reflected in this cylinder the images of Medusa and the man carrying the yoke snapped into a more recognizable form that I found strangely moving.  While I quite enjoyed Kentridge’s works on paper and his mixed-media pieces it was his animations that I found particularly engaging.  There were three of them playing in the Henry, MemoStereoscope and Medicine ChestStereoscope you can check out a five minute exceprt in the above linked YouTube video though it lacks the soundtrack. To get a feel for the soundtrack from Stereoscope check out these two shorter excerpts: Sterescope 1, Stereoscope 2.  Kentridge’s animations, which I’ve written a bit about in my Return of Ulysses report, are as basic as you can get: a series of drawings that animate like a flipbook. There seems to be no use of cells, which allow for cutting down on the amount redrawn per frame (though he could do things to replicate unchanging elements such as printing each page or photocopying them).  There is a directness, a humanness in his animations with the process directly exposed. The images, like his works on paper, seem thrown on the page and highly emotional. The subject matter of Memo and Stereoscope seem to be the banalities of everyday existence, with its office works overwhelmed by everyday activities and dualities of work and infidelities.

William Kentridge Medicene Chest still

Medicine Chest, which was I think my favorite, of the animated pieces and its enclosure inside an actual medicine chest I think was a big part of this.  Taking a normal medicine chest with the door open and seamlessly replacing the back with a video screen, leaving inside three glass shelves.  In a way it reminded me of a modern take on a Rauschenberg combine, which Kentridge’s evocative and rough animation seems to reinforce.  This animation featured things you’d see in a medicine chest: tonics, cups and other toiletries but also reflected faces and then eventually it became a window to an interior world of birds and landscapes.  The reflection of the video in the glass shelves was omnipresent but at times it was clearly worked with, used in the animations to great effect and images were reflected and refracted into the third dimension.  The mirror on the open door displayed the room and, if you sat in the right place, yourself extending the reach of the piece beyond itself.  As I had waited for this video to restart from the beginning I had spent a good amount of time with a charcoal drawing on the opposite wall called Gyroscope. This was a rather plain sketched out landscape with a huge gyroscope dominating it, but shown in overlapping layers of movement so that it looked more like and armillary sphere then a gyroscope.  I was delighted when this turned up in Medicine Chest and you could see as it began spinning its transformation into that image I’d spent so much time looking at. I think this was just a drawing for the piece (it had various drafting marks and notes on it, a feature of a lot of these pieces that I liked a lot) but it could have actually been a drawing from the final film. Which would mean these were really large which makes the whole process even more impressive.

Prior to these shows I really hadn’t been that aware of Kentridge beyond a few images in some contemporary art books that I probably couldn’t have brought to mind on hearing his name.  Seeing the opera and now this show (I’m kicking myself for missing the additional works on paper at the Greg Kucera gallery) I’ve come to really appreciate his work.  I’m pleased to see that there will be segment in the forthcoming Season 5 of Art:21 on him, it’ll be nice to see some of his working process on video.  His work is powerful, constantly struggling against his experiences as a white man in South Africa as well as reflecting the general human condition of the 21st century.  Certainly an artist I’ll be following as I can.

More Kentridge YouTube videos here.