News Column

Things get a little OCD at MOCA

July 18, 2013

YellowBrix

July 18--Stacey Steers spent thousands of hours painstakingly crafting individual frames for an animated short that depicts silent-film actress Lillian Gish having nightmarish visions in her cottage in the woods.

Brian Dettmer spent perhaps as much time carefully snipping into old books, page after page, to bring out surprising placements of words and phrases.

Both artists are exhibiting this summer at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.

It's the OCD show. As in, obsessive-compulsive.

Well, not really. These are normal people, perhaps smarter than average. But their art process requires an inordinate amount of focused attention of the sort that would drive most people nuts.

Dettmer, who lives in Atlanta, builds ingenious structures with thoughtful ideas behind them. His "Tower (Britannica 58)" of 2012, posted at his show's entrance, is a tall piece, naturally, given the title, composed entirely of books.

It's surprising that no support is used besides the hardcover encyclopedias. He interconnected the tomes via the pages, shuffling them together like cards in a playing deck. The tower is hollow in the center and has small windows throughout, so it looks as vulnerable to crashing as a house of cards. And yet, it's solid.

"Took months to figure out," Dettmer said during a reception for the show. He thinks of the series as "an ode to that era" when encyclopedias were the great source of information, prior to the Internet. It's a memorial to the classic reference set.

Musing over his concept, I notice that the windows allow views from many vantage points and heights, as does knowledge.

Dettmer is a dissector of books. Partly, he wants to honor an endangered object. It's also recycling, transforming an item that might otherwise by tossed. He cuts through pages and unearths, like an archaeologist-etymologist, phrases from different levels to craft cryptic, patched-together sentences that are amusing and sometimes poetic.

He did this to a book on bridge, the card game, pulling out magnet-poetry-type phrases such as: "When, however, you hold a hand RESPOND passed the desirable partner." Further down: "he will find out but he will be possibly a losing Heart."

If you check out his wall of images representing each of our 50 states, realize he has taken a paper copy of each state flag and cleverly cut it up to create a new image. With most, he managed to convey something about the state that's insightful or fun.

Steers' 16-minute animated film "Night Hunter" is at the core of her show at the Oceanfront art center. All else spins off it.

To give curators something 3-D to display, she came up with a captivating Victorian dollhouse visitors can peer into. Each room suggests scenes in her film, and small screens show clips on a continuous loop.

The house is a worthy counterpart to the film because it embodies the same claustrophobic, foreboding atmosphere. Looking through its tiny windows puts you in a child's mind-set. So does the film, which taps into fears youngsters might have -- that snakes might slink out of a basket of knitting, that eggs could crack open and release scary flying creatures.

Also on view is a selection of preparatory collages she crafted for the film. Each collage blends old engravings with stills from one of several films featuring Lillian Gish, she of the huge eyes and bow mouth. Gish looks like a grown-up little girl, and just as innocent, which makes her the ideal heroine/victim for Steers' unsettling tale.

Looking at these collages, you can see how well-crafted they are. Imagine making 4,000 of these collages (she used eight collages per second) to complete the film. She hand-colored each image with colored pencil.

It took her four years, working 30 hours a week.

"It's actually even staggering to me," said Steers, also at the reception.

Because the images were handmade, they differ frame to frame, creating a desirable visual agitation that makes the film look as twitchy-nervous as Gish's character.

Among the artists in her evolving genre of handmade animation are the Quay Brothers, recently showcased at the Museum of Modern Art.

"It's really great," she said. "The last 15 years, I've really started to see the art world wanting to engage with short films."

Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

IF YOU GO

What "Brian Dettmer: Elemental" and "Stacey Steers: Night Hunter"

Where Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, 2200 Parks Ave., Virginia Beach

When Through Aug. 18; open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends

Cost $7.70 adults, $5.50 students, seniors and military, free for ages 4 and younger

More info 425-0000, www.virginiamoca.org

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