All the Right Moves
Culture, Sunday Times, 2009 , pp.12, 13
Alice Maher’s motion pencil drawings provide a witty and inventive bridge between fine art and mass media, says Gerry McCarthy
It began with a horse, a millionaire and a bet. The railway mogul Leland Stanford bought the horse, Occident, in 1870 and installed him with 800 other racehorses at his Palo Alto estate near San Francisco. The motion of trotting horses was still a mystery at the time, and Stanford hired a local photographer to settle the question of whether all four hooves left the ground at once. Some say that he had a side bet for $25,000 with a crony.
The photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, invented a way of linking cameras in sequence to solve the problem. Seeing that his technique had deeper possibilities, he embarked on a series of motion studies in 1873, filming men, women and animals running and jumping.
This is one of cinema’s starting points. Devices already existed that could create an illusion of movement by displaying drawings in quick succession. Muybridge added photography to the equation. He displayed his pictures in fast succession to give an illusion of movement. Other pioneers, such as the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies, refined his techniques. A mass medium was born.
Now the Irish artist Alice Maher, born in Tipperary in 1956, is retracing that journey. Her latest work, The Music of Things, is the centre-piece of an exhibition at the Green on Red gallery in Dublin. To create it, Maher made more than a thousand pencil drawings and scanned them into a computer. Scanning and erasing at regular intervals, she came up with an original form of animation. The result is both funny and unsettling, and offers a new link between fine art and the mass media. Rembrandt meets Disney, and both are revitalised.
Maher has long been fascinated by the processes that lie behind the making of a piece of art. She moves between different art forms, making sculptures and installations, as well as conventional drawings. This is the first time she has worked with moving images, yet her short films portray subjects that have often featured in her other work.
Human hair, for example, is a Maher signature: as long ago as 1992, in Keep, she used thousands of strands of knotted hair, strung on a metal frame. That piece also illustrated her fondness for double meanings: she often uses a title to hint that a piece can be taken in various ways. “Keep” means to collect and retain, but is also a fortress, the core of a medieval castle. Collecting and medievalism are two of Maher’s central concerns.
With the short films in The Music of Things, Maher has found a new way of expressing her ideas. Drawings of hair come to life. They sprout and multiply before our eyes, growing longer and more complex, knotting themselves ever more intricately until they morph into different objects. In this way, she pins down the processes inherent in her own drawings.
It is clear that Maher loves to draw. She is a natural artist, in that her pencil is an extension of her imagination. Her word-heavy titles — one recent piece was entitled Hypnerotomachia — and her intellectual allusions can make her work seem dense and forbidding. Yet the animated drawings in Sphinx, Flora, and Sleep are infused with the joy of creativity.
Even when the drawing ventures into dark areas, such as a sequence where a woman’s breasts morph into twin heads, detach and roll away, Maher’s sense of fun is clear. She displays comedy and horror as sides of the same coin.
Her animated films, such as The Double, are genuinely funny. She uses sight gags and pratfalls with laugh-out-loud immediacy. They are entangled with more intellectual gags, allusions to art history and images borrowed from a thousand years of painting. Yet her pencilled pratfalls, using techniques of animated comedy developed by Walt Disney in the 1920s, are especially evocative. As Samuel Beckett drew inspiration from silent-film comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so she blends high and low art while enriching both.
In Maher’s work, humour comes to the fore, making her films vivid and alluring, while hinting at limitless depths
This bridge between popular and fine art is a potent discovery. Maher retains the authenticity and depth of her earlier work, while presenting it in a form that a child can appreciate. The result is neither pop art nor surrealism, but a heady blend of both with the everyday art of cartooning.
Maher has spoken about her fascination with Hieronymus Bosch, and his great painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Completed around 1504, this uniquely exotic triptych is a panoramic view of creation, crammed with images of sin, debauchery and punishment. One critic, Peter Beagle, called the work “an erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs”.
Bosch-style images abound in Maher’s short films. Like Bosch, her images reveal dark undercurrents without being too literal or obscene. There are faces of peasant women in distinctive Flemish headgear alongside images of torture and pain where thorn trees sprout from naked bodies. Somehow, the jaunty motion of the drawings transposes the horror into a cartoon universe where bodies are infinitely flexible.
Her artistic heritage, however, spans the centuries. One 20th century artist echoed in Maher’s work is the surrealist Max Ernst, who produced books of collages based on old prints. Ernst’s bird-faced women and startling juxtapositions, in works such as The Hundred Headless Woman, are forerunners of Maher’s films. Thanks to her scanning technique, though, it is easier for her to work on different levels at once. Rather than simple juxtaposition, she has the added dimension of time.
Maher’s animated world is rich and allusive, yet playful. She toys with gender and sexuality: a nude woman is clothed as a cleric who transforms into a bishop and becomes male; his mitre splits open, with a suddenly blatant phallic symbolism.
Unlike conventional animation, these films are not the result of a storyboarding process. No narrative sequences were planned in advance. Each individual drawing was made by partially erasing its predecessor, using a single sheet of paper from start to finish. As a result, stray pencil marks accumulated. Each film is a record of the way that noise infiltrates a piece of communication.
Somewhere during the 150-year history of avant-garde art, that system too was subverted by noise. A gulf opened between the intellectual concerns of fine art and the popular preoccupations of the mass media. Cartoons and animation are a bridge between the two worlds. In Maher’s work, humour comes to the fore, making her films vivid and alluring. At the same time, they hint at limitless depths.
In the 1870s, Muybridge had a powerful sense of being in at the birth of something new. Maher’s animations may not be quite so earth-shaking, but they point to a route out of the gulf between high art and a mass audience. Humour, undermining the po-faced profundities of contemporary art, is a highly effective bridge between the two worlds.
It takes us unawares, drawing us in with slapstick until we find ourselves laughing at images of horror. Maher’s spiky comedy reveals a world of constant change. Noisy, messy and chaotic, it still shows an exuberant creativity, and it brings art, with all its complexities, into the realm of the mass media in a darkly potent way.
And yes, all four hooves leave the ground at once when a horse trots.