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Art Documentary History

'Black Art: In the Absence of Light,' a New Documentary, Celebrates the Rich Legacy of Black Art

February 17, 2021

Grace Ebert

“I saw the need to build cultural awareness by helping to revise and redefine American art,” says the renowned professor, artist, and curator David Driskell in Black Art: In the Absence of Light. His words echo throughout the new HBO documentary—which was directed by Sam Pollard, with executive producers Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jacqueline Glover—that uncovers the rich and underappreciated lineage of Black art.

Structured chronologically, the feature-length film was released earlier this month and stems from Driskell’s revolutionary exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which opened in 1979 at LACMA and surveyed more than 200 works dating back to 1750 from 63 artists. The formative show went on to major museums in Dallas, Atlanta, and Brooklyn, breaking attendance records despite its unenthusiastic response from some critics and institutions, including two in Chicago and Detroit that rejected its visit entirely.

 

David Driskell in his studio

Two Centuries of Black American Art, though, had a widespread and profound impact, which the documentary explores through interviews with artists working today. Many conversations begin with Driskell, who died last April from the coronavirus before Black Art‘s release. The film probes a vast archive from Chicago artists like Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Theaster Gates (previously), alongside Amy Sherald (previously), Kehinde Wiley (previously), and Jordan Casteel, among others.

Through a multi-generational lens, the documentary examines the nuanced effects of these figures’ contributions to the broader field of contemporary American art as it shares footage of their practices and reactions to their works. For example, Fred Wilson unveils what’s hidden within museum collections, while Wiley and Sherald both comment on the profound experience of painting the Obamas’ official portraits. Additional insights from Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who also is a consulting producer, are woven throughout the film.

 

Amy Sherald working on Michelle Obama’s portrait

Beyond galleries and museums, much of Black Art centers on the value of representation and unearthing a narrative that’s been obscured or outright dismissed. In particular, it considers the role of collectives like Sprial, which was founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis in order to highlight the work generated by Black artists in the Civil Rights Movement. While Sprial drew attention to otherwise ignored projects, it was largely dominated by men, a problem Faith Ringgold speaks to as she describes being rejected from the group. Sprial only admitted one woman, Emma Amos.

The final segment focuses on the importance of collectors investing in Black artists, in addition to the long history of spaces like Studio Museum and historically Black colleges and universities. These institutions continue to foster communities that honor the legacy of those who’ve come before while backing those forging new ground, prompting questions like this one from Theaster Gates: “We are part of a continued renaissance—it’s been happening. What I’m most excited about is, do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light?”

Black Art is streaming on HBO Max through March 17. Educators also can download a coinciding curriculum with research tools and discussion prompts, in addition to another filled with activities designed to spur creativity.

 

Kerry James Marshall in his studio

 

 



Animation

The Wolf House: A Horror Film Plunges into the Disturbing Mind of a Child through a Blend of Stop-Motion Animation and Murals

January 12, 2021

Grace Ebert

Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León descend into the psychologically disturbing world of a child escaped from religious fanatics in their feature-length film The Wolf HouseLayered with audio of unsettling voices and the quiet mutterings of a young girl, the grotesque animation seamlessly blends horror and documentary as it recounts some of the tragedies of the Colonia Dignidad, the post-World War II colony that was established by Germans and Chileans under the dictatorial rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Founded in 1961, the isolated area was infamous for torture, internment, and murder, and The Wolf House showcases its impact on a child who takes refuge in a strange house.

Fans of filmmaker Daisy Jacobs and artist BLU will recognize some of the methods used in Cociña and León’s work, including classic stop-motion techniques and painting directly on the walls of the set. Characters shift constantly, whether between two and three dimensions as they morph from murals into sculptural creatures or as they contort their bodies from life-sized forms to massive heads and from human to animal.

Cociña and León, who are from Chile originally, have been collaborating since 2007 and lead the Santiago-based production company Diluvio. You can stream The Wolf House on ScreeningRoom, and see more of the duo’s genre-bending work on their site and Vimeo.

 

 

 



Design Photography

A New Book Compiles Photos of Idiosyncratic, Quirky Destinations that Look Just Like Wes Anderson Films

October 21, 2020

Grace Ebert

All images © Wally Koval, shared with permission

Devotees of Wes Anderson’s films can spot the pastel architecture and simple signage synonymous with the American director’s aesthetic anywhere, a notion that’s proven in a newly released book by Wally Koval. Buoyed by an Instagram account with more than 1,200 images from all seven continents, Accidentally Wes Anderson showcases international destinations with the likeness of the Grand Budapest Hotel or the heavily wallpapered train cars of The Darjeeling Limited. The 368-page edition is teeming with charm, quirky compositions, and picturesque settings and even includes a foreword written by the famed director himself, who previously had no ties to the endeavor.

Based in Brooklyn, Koval began collecting photographs in 2017 and has since amassed an incredible archive, which he’s categorized by location, theme, and color palette on his site. Further explore the idiosyncratic locales by picking up a copy of Accidentally Wes Anderson on Bookshop. (via Fast Company)

 

 

 



Animation Illustration

Download Hundreds of Frames from Studio Ghibli Animations for Video-Chat Backgrounds for Free

September 29, 2020

Grace Ebert

Ponyo on the cliff

Thanks to Studio Ghibli, you can hide piles of laundry and errant messes while videoconferencing from home with one of 400 stills from classic animations. The renowned Japanese animation studio recently released an online archive of images— which boasts iconic frames from films like Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo and Spirited Away and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya available—for free download. Each month, Studio Ghibli will add an additional eight images, mostly derived from new works.

This recent collection appears to be an extension of the studio’s release of video-conferencing backgrounds earlier this year. Explore the entire archive and watch for upcoming projects, which include a new Miyazaki-directed film, on the studio’s site. (via Hyperallergic)

 

Ponyo on the cliff

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises

The Borrower Arrietty

 

 



Animation

Clay Faces Twist and Warp on Human Bodies in Mixed-Media Film by Sam Gainsborough

December 18, 2019

Grace Ebert

Animation director Sam Gainsborough’s new mixed-media film contorts and melts characters’ faces, altering and shaping both how they see and how they’re viewed. Facing It depicts a man struggling with relationships to his family and friends, his social anxiety, and his fear of being isolated from those around him. Throughout the film, dripping, swirling, and rippling clay faces mask those of the human bodies.

Gainsborough tells Directors Notes that he shot the characters’ claymation faces against a green screen before transferring them frame-by-frame to fit separate footage with actors, combining stop-motion and live-action techniques. Each face is roughly double life-size, and in total, the film’s creators used more than 1,100 pounds of plasticine. Adding human bodies to the work creates a “visible layer of reality” that stands in contrast to the feelings shown on the animated faces.

He feels that his parents are these emotionless rock-like characters so they’re animated to look like gargoyles. Whereas he sees everyone else in the world as being effortlessly happy so they’re animated fluidly with lots of colour. But at the end of the day the feelings he has are false, what lies underneath that is reality, real people (with painted hands for some reason!).

The goal of the work, the director says, is to push viewers to question whether they’re living how they want to. He and writer Louisa Wood wanted “a main character who would be seen to bottle up their emotions rather than living true to themselves. We wanted to make a film that celebrates everyone’s flaws and internal struggle, no one’s perfect after all.”

Facing It was produced in the same space that Nick Park first created Wallace and Gromit – A Grand Day Out, the director says. “It was really cool for me to be working in the same room that saw the creation of a film I found so inspiring as a child.”

Gainsborough is based in London and graduated from the National Film and Television School. His future plans, which you can follow on Instagram, include employing a similar technique but with stop-motion puppets.

 

 



Documentary Science

Fantastic Fungi: A New Film Explores Earth's Vast Network of Mycelium and Mushrooms

December 17, 2019

Grace Ebert

A new film considers how mycelium and mushrooms have created an often-unseen network, similar to an underground internet, that has connected all living beings for the last 3.5 billion years. Featuring conversations with food journalist Eugenia Bone, mycologist Paul Stamets, and writer Michael Pollan, Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us dives into how the diverse underground web creates the soil necessary for plants and trees to root. “It’s amazing what we don’t know about mushrooms. They really are a frontier of knowledge,” Pollan says in the film.

Fantastic Fungi explores seven benefits of the organisms, including those dealing with biodiversity, innovation, food, arts, and mental, physical, and spiritual health. Screenings are scheduled worldwide through February 2020. Follow updates on the film directed by Louie Schwartzberg and the broader fungi movement on Instagram. (Thnx, Laura!)