In Stacey Steers’ short “Night Hunter,” a moth and then another and another fly into a woman’s mouth to her evident dismay. It’s an image that stirs in this viewer unsettling memories of FBI agent Clarice Starling and “Silence of the Lambs” serial killer Buffalo Bill. Steers’ film stars Lillian Gish — who made a helluva showing when she faced down Robert Mitchum’s psychopath in “The Night of the Hunter.” Her casting only underscores the association.
In Steers’ latest, “Edge of Alchemy,” a honeycomb sits atop a woman’s head. To some the nudge might feel like a visual/aural pun: Honeycomb…hair…“Comb, get it?” Steers work teases associations galore, but the animator with the gentle spirit doesn’t want you to fret about getting her meanings right. “It’s more interesting when people have their own responses,” Steers says one late mornings sitting in her Boulder studio. Her reply when people tell her what they think she’s up to? “I’m like ‘Yeah?’ …Cool.’”
Methodically working a sensibility that is dark and dreamy, bygone and contemporary, Steers finds herself in the midst of a particularly busy spell. Her experimental film trilogy — “Phantom Canyon,” “Night Hunter” and “Edge of Alchemy” — make up a substantial part of a very fine show that includes the works of Kahn & Selesnick and Kiki Smith at Robischon Gallery in Denver (through May 6). A solo exhibition featuring “Edge of Alchemy,” as well as Steers’ prints, collages and installations related to the short continues at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco through April 15.
While screening experimental video isn’t new to galleries, it’s more typically the purview of museums and film festivals. In late 2016, Steers’ “Edge of Alchemy” premiered at the Denver Art Museum. In 2012, the former University of Colorado film professor was recipient of the Stan Brakhage Vision Award at the Denver Film Festival.
“Her process is both labor-intensive and intuitive,” wrote Ron Henderson, the fest’s co-founder, in a recommendation letter he shared. “She spends several years creating artwork for each film—typically eight distinct, unique images for every second of animation. Over time, these images become a formal record of an ongoing and obsessive engagement with an original idea, through all its transformations.” In November, “Edge of Alchemy” will get a showing at the 40th installment of the Denver festival.
Steers has made animated films for more than two decades. Even so, the trilogy, which began with “Phantom Canyon,” represents a marked departure from her earlier films, which often employed South American indigenous themes. In “Wattuna,”(1990), her intricate repetition of animals and shapes evokes a rich, tribal fabric come to life. In “Totem” (1999) animals float by, often morphing into other animals. A snake coils around the neck of a blue heron and then grows bigger, devouring it in its wide maw. A panther puts its paws up to its eyes, which turn into butterflies and take flight. Later they flutter back to the panther becoming eyes again.
If her early animated films paid homage to the lessons she learned as a young American woman traveling and living in South America, her recent work, with its images from silent movies as well as early nature reels, represents time spent reckoning with the meaning of being a body, a female body, in the world, with all the subjectivity that proposition entails. “Interiority” is a word Steers uses frequently. “I feel like my films all take place in the body,” she says.
As with her earlier work, shapes still shift and flora and fauna remain vital, but they are at the service not of a vulnerable external world, but instead a complicated internal one. In the three films that make up the trilogy, which use color sparingly if at all, images still give way to other images with unapologetic fluidity.
“The truth is when I first started working in this way — on “Phantom Canyon” — I was very frustrated with drawing. I had drawn film for almost 15 years. I was really frustrated with my drawing style. It felt inadequate. I didn’t think I could express myself well enough by drawing,” she says. “The way you draw feels a certain way and I felt I just couldn’t get away from it. So I was looking for a more neutral way of working, honestly, with more neutral material. I started playing around with collage.” Borrowed and reframed, these images have led to films that are peculiar and intimate. Her work beguiles and disquiets. “I just think I’m better as a collage artist than I was at drawing,” says Steers. “I like the limits. I think limits are healthy. They’re artistically helpful.”
A month before her gallery shows, Steers was in her studio organizing the collages that will make up part of the gallery experiences. The studio, two rooms in a concrete office park with a large window facing onto a parking lot, is as lean as her collages are elaborately wrought. Animation, even the computer-generated kind, is notoriously labor intensive. Steers handcrafted more than 4,000 collages for “Night Hunter,” a 15-minute, 35mm film.
On a high top table, a Mini DVD camera is attached to a simple animation stand. “It’s a very inadequate camera, but it tells me whether I’m getting the effect I wanted or not,” Steers says. “You can see it immediately which is very helpful.” She pulls out one of the collages she’s affixed to animation paper. It’s one frame in a scene that brings to mind Dr. Frankenstein and his creature. Only Gish portrays “The Scientist” to Janet Gaynor’s “creature.” The gender flip puts a maternal spin on the duo (though others have pointed out a lesbian suggestiveness to the artist).
In the hands of artists, collage has made bold use of juxtaposition and association. Max Ernst and his fellow surrealists asserted its uncanny force with their often erotic, at times violent, always challenging collisions of materials and meanings. Bringing together film and collage adds to the associative power.
Eadweard Muybridge’s classic motion study images gave Steers a fresh language for “Phantom Canyon,” a short tale of yearning that features a woman and a man (with bat wings), coupling and separating repeatedly. Yet there were limits she wanted to go beyond in her next films. “These images are all about motion, about movement. But they’re not very psychologically resonant,” she says. “I tried to add that in other ways. I was looking for other images that were more psychological. So you need a closeup. You need a face. That’s when I remembered Lillian Gish. Because I love her film ‘Broken Blossoms.’ It’s so intense. It’s such an amazing film.”
Steers has a particular affinity for American Joseph Cornell, who created dimensions of meaning in a kinder, gentler, but no less keen way than his surrealists kin when he began assembling his boxes. For some of his most famous works, Cornell used images of Hollywood stars: sultry Lauren Bacall in “Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall” among them.
In “Night Hunter” (2012) and “Edge of Alchemy” (2016) Steers casts two of the silent era’s most iconic stars: Gish and Mary Pickford respectively. Another pre-sound visage, Gaynor, appears in “Alchemy.”
“I wasn’t even a silent film fan,” Steers confesses. “I’m just discovering these films as I go a lot of the times. With (Gish), I started watching her other films, thinking, ‘I think I can work with her.’ I can take her out of her films. I had had the experience of cutting up Muybridge (in ‘Phantom Canyon.’) Why not try it with an actual film character? That led to ‘Night Hunter.’”
For “Edge of Alchemy,” Steers took images of Pickford from five of her films. She also borrowed from Gaynor’s early filmography — including F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Oscar winner “Sunrise” — to spin the story of a scientist and her creature.
While the expressiveness of these silent movie faces gives Steers’ work emotional oomph, sound, too, gives her trilogy power. In “Edge of Alchemy,” composer/sound designer Lech Jankowski (with additional input from experiment filmmaker Phil Solomon) creates a potent, intricate mix of instrumentation, voices and, more eerily, the sounds of rustling, fluttering, sighing and inhaling.
Walking through the three rooms at Robischon Gallery featuring Steers’ trilogy, a viewer is struck by the lush, sometimes rattling sounds permeating the space. Each short is projected in an installation that resonates with the film’s subject. “Phantom Canyon” unfurls on a lace-trimmed pillow that rests on a bed, one of many piled atop each other. “Night Hunter’s” unnerving domesticity appears in each miniature room of two haunting doll houses. The “Edge of Alchemy’s” scientific fable plays out in a large glass lens housed in a wooden contraption that looks part vise, part antique research device.
“You have to make something like that now,” says Steers of the inventive installations and their screens. “The films aren’t enough when you start moving into the gallery environment. She adds, “It’s a lot of work.” A film purist might want to quibble with that assessment, but the intricate, commanding show at the Robischon makes a persuasive argument for Steers’ multidimensional artistry.
Info: Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, Denver CO. Tuesday – Friday 11 -6; Saturday 12 – 5. (Through May 6)
Catharine Clark Gallery, 248 Utah Street
San Francisco, CA. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday: 11-6 Thursday: 11 -7 (Through April 15)