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Monday, September 3, 2012

Quay Brothers

Intrigued by a macabre photo in the NY Times, I decided to go see the Quay Brothers’ show at MoMA. I must confess, I had never heard of the Quay Brothers and have to say their aesthetic is not mine. All that Victoriana. And dolls. Piero Fornasetti insipidness and Joseph Cornell dark whimsy...

However, I am drawn to obsessive, oddball artists. Indeed, the Quays seem like outsider artists even though they aren’t. I admire the fact that these twins, who settled in England in 1969 and seem to live and breathe only art, burst forth from rural Pennsylvania to scale the very heights of the art world. 

I also admire their work ethic. Though most famous for their stop-action animation, featuring puppets made of doll parts and other materials, there’s nothing they haven’t seemed to have done. From the 1968 Blood, Sweat & Tears album cover (the Quays’ original headless design was altered to include the band’s heads) to T.V. ads. In fact, I loved their ads. Many of their films resemble the opening credits of the Monty Python show, which doesn’t float my boat, but the Doritos ad has a definite Brazil vibe and the ones for Slurpee and a British throat lozenge, Lockets, were terrific.

During their long and fecund career, the Quays have worked as professional illustrators designing book covers; they’ve also designed sets for theatre and opera (in 1998 they received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for the play The Chairs) and have shot music videos for various artists—artists I’ve never heard of, I might add, not that that means a thing.

I was interested to learn about the Polish Surrealists who the Quays admired and emulated, and I realized just how pervasive their influence was remembering back to the posters that graced my high school homerooms in the 1970s.

I sat through the Quays’ most famous film, Street of Crocodiles based on a novella of the same name (nearly all the Quays’ films are inspired by literary texts and feature compelling musical scores) because I thought I should, and liked some aspects of it, most of all the creepy eyeless dolls and the actual liver, but I was really drawn into the shorter film, Bruno Schulz, Fragments and Scenes—Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (2006) (actually the "pilot" or preview for their third feature which is currently pre-production) that incorporates live action and nature with puppets. It was mysterious, shimmering and beautiful.

The Quays' objects have a uniformly excavated look, threadbare and covered with grime or dust. This cuts through the saccharin, but in trying to be sinister, is also trite. There are a number of references to screws and watch works, perhaps a tribute to their father, a machinist.

In 2010 the Quays were commissioned to produce a new film entitled Anatomica Asthetica focusing on the history and collections of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Having long known of the gruesome nature of the Mütter and never quite having got up the courage to go there, it sounds like a match made in Heaven.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating chronicle of these brothers' work. Thanks for the research. I knew about them but didn't have the full story. In fact although I dimly knew they were American but little else.