1.3 / Review

Martha Colburn Residency

By Dena Beard November 18, 2009

Martha Colburn’s animations charge the frame with such ferocity that it almost hurts to watch. After spending four hours with some 24 of her more than 46 films, which channel the Tin Man cum Osama bin Laden, fetishized arachnids, and puppet reenactments of the first Thanksgiving, the hallucinogenic overtones helped me fight the impulse to create cohesion from her narratives. Tacitly these unconscious imaginings give rise to strikingly clear associations, which is why the work is so illuminating—not just for its ideational and aesthetic lushness but for its approach.

Weaving music, poetry, found footage, and historical narratives into the celluloid, Colburn’s commitment to animation is absolutely literal. The films’ embedded actions of over-painting, scratching out, collaging, puzzle manipulations, and puppetry are often paired with the live action of musicians, poets, and even the unfamiliar sight of actual projectors sputtering and crackling amid the audience.

Martha Colburn. Live Cinema, November 12, 2009; featuring music by music by Haleh Abghari, John Dieterich, Michael Evans, Jad Fair, Thollem McDonas, Laura Ortman, and Ryan Sawyer; courtesy of the artist and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Charles Villyard.

These performative collaborations activated the crowd as well. This wasn’t the passive cinematic experience of the digital age. Colburn combats technological polish and canned narratives with the innate character of handmade objects. It seems obvious in a way, but the whizzes and sighs of the musicians, the odd metamorphoses of the painted puppets, all the anarchic improvisation contributed to an environment that felt subversive to the violent historical and social narratives that are the predominate subjects of her films.

The arc of Colburn’s last 15 years of filmmaking was manifested by the SFMOMA screenings. The artist has described her career by saying she has moved from historical and social themes to an exploration of sexuality and then back to political inferences, but here it appeared much more complex. The music videos (if they can be called that) challenged the genre’s conventions. Colburn visually adds tonal layers instead of simply illustrating a song, aligning the accelerated pace of her animations with the raw, disjointed harmonies. The frames, cut and reworked as though under construction, alternately speed forward decisively and dissolve into the landscape.

Cosmetic Emergency (2005) paralleled media distortions with a disfiguring over-painting that added breasts to soldiers as they struck a macho pose, a comment on the military’s subsidization of cosmetic surgeries; in addition, the film obscured media images of doll-faced women with multi-hued paint and large noses. This DIY vandalism destructs and anthropomorphizes the superficial information that so complicates the lives of women and frustrates the desires of men. A similar ethos carried over into a recent film made for the anthology Electric Literature (2009), in which Colburn cut a hole into the chest of a naked woman, in paper cutout form, and projected images into the hole—a simple and beautiful reversal of the violence of a mastectomy.

Martha Colburn. Myth Labs (still), 2008; 16mm film animation, 7 min.; Courtesy of the Artist.

All this erupts into the tour de force of four of Colburn’s recent and most intensely wrought films: Destiny Manifesto (2006), Meet Me in Wichita (2006), Myth Labs (2008), and Triumph of the Wild (2008). I’ve watched each of these several times, and Myth Labs many more while it was housed in the MATRIX space at the Berkeley Art Museum where I work. Still, I am struck by the accuracy of Colburn’s instincts—the representational parallels she draws between the American West and the Middle East; the Puritanical founding fathers, which she transforms into contemporary meth-heads; and her suggestion that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological fallout of our increasingly unhinged hunting campaigns. Her research is palpable. Significantly, she refrains from creating narrative continuity, instead depicting the erosion of iconography and the reconstitution of freedom, wealth, and the compulsion towards violence within vastly different environments. The effect of this total construction is simultaneously awing and electrifying, battling the caustic refinement of popular culture with the extreme oddity of corporeality.

Martha Colburn’s weeklong residency at SFMOMA included Power to the Puppets: Films by Martha Colburn, with music by Thollem McDonas and John Dieterich; Martha Colburn Selects . . . ; and Puppets of the Apocalypse, or Martha Colburn: Live Cinema, with musicians Haleh Abghari, John Dieterich, Michael Evans, Jad Fair, Thollem McDonas, Laura Ortman, and Ryan Sawyer.

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