Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hobo Clown, Allison Schulnik featuring Granny Diner by Grizzly Bear

Native Californian, Allison Schulnik was born in San Diego in 1978 and moved to Los Angeles, where she now works as an animator and artist. She attended CalArts where she got her BFA in Experimental Animation. Schulnik’s works are immediately identifiable as colorful expressions of distorted biomorphic forms. Often working in clay, Schulnik molds and creates works that recall images of Abstract Expressionist and German Expressionist paintings and film, but denies a full emulation of the former style, as the video focuses on a representational figure. Schulnik, like many other contemporary artists, works in several fields as a sculptor, painter, animator and video artist. Her works are lo-tech and emotional. They encourage viewers to contemplate what she is physically doing with the clay, calls us to watch the motion, and to consider the music the piece is set to because the overall meaning is not immediately discernible.

Much like Wassily Kandinsky, whose work was both influenced and shaped entirely by music, Schulnik uses music as an integral part of her video art. She has worked with the indie band Grizzly Bear on several occasions to produce oddly emotional renditions of their eerie, dreamlike music. The animated feature, Hobo Clown is stop-motion animation that features Grizzly Bear’s Granny Diner (which is a Japanese bonus track from the 2006 album, Yellow House and is also on the Friend EP). The slow paced, curious music that Grizzly Bear produces gives the video an even more haunting tone. Schulnik and Grizzly Bear go hand in hand--without their music and without her art, the pieces would not have such a powerful effect; the art informs the music and the music informs the art.

The video opens with sad twangs of the banjo that characterize Grizzly Bear’s music. The Hobo Clown sits, eyes downcast, in what appears to be a dark, damp place. The banjo is dubbed with reverb, which heightens the distortion of the visuals Schulnik has created. His eyes explode with color and his face is caught in a distraught expression. His fingers tenderly caress his own hands as he sits by a tin-foil fire. The scene evokes the artifice of German Expressionist films, in that the backgrounds are constructed and obviously representational. Much like the films of early German Expressionism, Hobo Clown embarks on a psychological study of the clay-animated protagonist. The films of early 20th-century Germany focused largely on despair, horror, fantasy, and fiction. In Hobo Clown, Schulnik lands directly in the same camp.

Schulnik contorts the Hobo Clown’s face and it is the only clear expression of anguish, fear, emotion, pain, wonder, awe that we get in the work. The background is background--it fades to white or black and the bright, bold, swirling colors of the clown stand in stark contrast. The clown’s body remains static while he sits on the log and the over-emphasized expressions of the character’s face recall that of an archetypal clown. The color palette in this first scene is dark--blacks, greys, greens, oranges, and red--reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s deeply disturbed, psychologically profound paintings.

The next scene takes us to a white promise land, filled with roses and other flora on the soft-looking ground. The music picks up with reverbed guitar, which makes the scene feel wondrous and emotive. The Hobo Clown sports a white outfit and the colors shift to a more divine palette. The lighter colors point to the palettes of expressionists Kandinsky, Helen Frankenthaler and Willem de Kooning whose work is almost mimicked in some of the video stills from Hobo Clown (see 4:11 in video). Suddenly, the white background disappears to show a black abyss with floating, distorted heads. This portion of the video is immediately reminiscent of Matisse’s portrait of his wife, Amelie, in which he employed radical color application--blue for the hat, red for the hair, green for the skin, etc. The juxtaposition of what should be a happy clown figure is complete when the Hobo Clown appears totally consumed by despair, in the white land, as he looks at a spot on the ground that looks just like it could be a work by De Kooning. The conclusion of the video comes at the most emotionally charged portion of the narrative--the spot on the floor twists and pulls, and the clown’s face is more expressive than ever, while the song’s only lyrics: “why don’t you do any dishes? why? I always clean up the kitchen, fine” leave viewers feeling both haunted and melancholy.

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