Susan Morris | Essays

Sundance/Slamdance 2023: Visual Arts

At the 2023 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals one can sense anxiety as well as nostalgia, a fractured world searching for sense and meaning. Here is a roundup of films that feature design — built, graphic, and digital; and the arts — visual, performing, and literary.

The visual arts kicked off with a design tale. Squaring the Circle: (The Story of Hipgnosis) the design firm of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey "Po" Powell created memorable album covers for Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon [1973], Wish You Were Here [1975], Houses of the Holy, [1973]); Led Zeppelin (Atom Heart Mother [1970], Presence [1976]); Paul McCartney (Band on the Run [1973], Venus and Mars [1975]); Peter Gabriel (self-titled album with finger scratches [1978 and 1980]); Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [1974]); Black Sabbath (Technical Ecstasy [1976]); AC/DC (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap [1976]); 10cc (How Dare You [1976], Look Hear? [1980]); Yes (Going for the One [1976]); and many more. Indelible images such as a cow, red balls on the Sahara Desert, a prison break, shaking hands with a man on fire, and a prism on black background form the surreal, inventive images that gave visual form to music. “Their methods were unconventional, their budgets often unreasonable, but they were fearless visionaries who artfully manipulated photographic images long before computer graphics became ubiquitous.”

Upon seeing puppets designed and created by the Swiss/German artist Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) who had taught at the Bauhaus, on display in Bern, Switzerland, filmmaker Martin Charrière longed to see them in action. He created a VR puppet theater with multi-level dioramas of a whole fictional city and the Bauhaus, and 3D puppeteering using Klee’s creatures and sets in Unframed: Hand Puppets, Paul Klee. Charrière used used a software that allowed him to animate the puppets directly in VR as if they were real.  Part fiction, part documentary, the puppets themselves recount the major events of Klee’s life from his artistic beginnings, through his professorship at the Bauhaus, to the rise of Nazism, Unframed offers a fresh look at the artist and his history.

In With Peter Bradley the 79-year old Black artist Peter Bradley says, “There’s people that are portrait painters, there’s people that paint objects, and then there’s people who just paint color, and they’re called abstract. …the reality of it is color is the most important thing.” Bradley plays jazz while he works on his color field paintings by pouring buckets of liquid pigment onto canvases laid flat on the ground, and using an electric mixer to splash paint on the canvas. Music is critical to his work, and he maintains “every sound has a color”: for example, the bass is blue, black or tan; the trumpet is yellow, white or silver. In fact, Bradley personally knew many great jazz musicians, and as an adoptee, for years thought trumpeter Miles Davis was his father.  He had a promising start as the first Black art dealer on Madison Avenue (at Perls Galleries where Alexander Calder showed, subsequent to Bradley’s ingenious hanging of Calder’s Ghost from the Guggenheim rotunda skylight in 1964 where he was an an installer); probably the first Black artist represented by a major New York gallery (André Emmerich on 57th Street); and curator of what is considered the first integrated modern art show in America (The DeLuxe Show, 1971 in Houston patronized by John de Menil). Bradley lived at 654 Broadway along with other artists in building: William T. Williams, Joel Shapiro, and Kenneth Nolan (who introduced him to art critic Clement Greenberg). They impacted his work through their use of color, and Bradley decided he wanted both color and more movement — no straight lines, no sign of the human hand.  He fell on hard times in the 1980s, and although he has been more isolated living upstate, he still paints daily. (His daughter, Garrett Bradley is a filmmaker whose Time (2020) won Best Director U.S. Documentary at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.)

Artist Sandow Birk has visualized many contemporary subjects (Donald Trump, gun violence, the pandemic, pro-Nazi marches, prisons),  and updated takes on historical ones (the Qur'an, historical paintings in the US Capitol) and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy (c.1307), first as a book and then a film (Inferno is the first of three sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso). With head puppeteer and actor Paul Zaloom, Birk’s film Dante’s Inferno is set in Los Angeles and performed in the style of puppetry called "toy theater" that uses paper cut-outs for puppets and sets. Hell is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment located within the Earth; it is the "realm ... of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen.” Here, it is updated to contemporary times with an urban streetscape and opens with a man in the street who rises, hung over, unclear where he is, and his cell phone has no service. Virgil (70 – 21 BC), poet of ancient Rome, author of the Aeneid, appears as his guide. They run into such historical figures as Ovid, Horace, Homer, George Sand, and George Eliot, plus heroes and villains of contemporary and historical society — politicians, clergy, and businessmen. Other voice talent includes Dermot Mulroney (Dante), James Cromwell (Virgil), Tony Hale, Martha Plimpton, and Matt Walsh. 

All Sundance and Slamdance 2023 Category Reviews
The Built Environment
Visual Arts
Media Arts
Art + Life
Performing Arts
Literary Arts

Films Mentioned
Squaring the Circle: (The Story of Hipgnosis).  Director Anton Corbijn.  Sundance
Unframed: Hand Puppets.  Director Martin Charriere.  Slamdance
With Peter Bradley.  Director Alex Rappoport.  Slamdance
Dante’s Inferno.  Director Sean Meredith.  Slamdance

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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