New York

Brent Green

Bellwether

Five years ago, armed with a cheap digital camera and a computer equipped with iMovie, Brent Green set out to produce his first short animated video. The result, Susa’s Red Ears, 2002, was a choppily edited, whimsical tale featuring characters drawn on fragments of translucent cels, Scotch-taped together and photographed moving across naively rendered landscapes painted on glass and wood. Green has since upgraded to a superior digital SLR camera and has also begun to integrate stop-motion animation of three-dimensional, carved wooden elements. He continues to draw as well; the figures are more sophisticated than before, but the cels and Scotch tape are still featured prominently, badges of do-it-yourself honor.

Green delivers his offbeat stories in plangent monologues, articulating a milieu that encompasses the desperate, abject pathologies of rural America, using a small cast of characters that seems at once strange and familiar, like a selection of warped folk archetypes from the imagination of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl. In his gallery debut at Bellwether, Green exhibited three recent animated videos and four shorter clips alongside a sculpture, the Disneyesque Grandfather Clock, 2006. Some works, like the poignant, occasionally beautiful, life-size stop-motion short Carlin, 2006, feature characters drawn directly from the young filmmaker’s life (in this case, Green’s late, diabetic aunt). Others are more fantastical, such as Paulina Hollers, 2006 (at nearly twelve and a half minutes, the longest video in the show), which recounts the morbid tale of a religious zealot who commits suicide with a shotgun in an effort to reclaim her “asshole kid” from hell. It’s a twisted, Appalachian take on Greek search-and-rescue myths such as that of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in the Green version, neither protagonist escapes, and pragmatic folk wisdom substitutes for the typical, magical denouement. (“They don’t get out of hell,” Green intones at one point. “I mean, you can’t just leave, no matter how bad you think it is.”) Herein lies Green’s talent: He’s a raconteur with a knack for crafting novel narratives that refer to mythological tropes without deferring to them.

There’s a moment in Paulina Hollers in which the heroine sweeps away a pile of dirt to reveal a window looking onto hell. The plane separating the worlds of the living and the dead is thus represented by a thin membrane; when the characters die, the transition from one realm to the next is visually articulated by a dramatic switch from three-dimensional stop-motion animation to two-dimensional cel animation. Green embraces existential futility, highlighting the fragility of life and the impossibility of turning back, or, as the filmmaker puts it in Paulina Hollers: “It’s easy for us to do, to die. God builds like Frank Lloyd Wright. You can marvel at the complexity, ingenuity, and occasional beauty, but we are by no means sound.”

However, though Green can spin yarns like a warp-weighted loom, his visual style is often underwhelming, a diluted version of Tim Burton, the Brothers Quay, or Jan Svankmajer, but lacking the ingenuity or technical sophistication that elevated these animators to the canon. Even less original are his sound tracks, which here included, among other elements, Green’s strained, strident warbling (indebted to confessional singer-songwriters such as Conor Oberst and the Mountain Goats’s John Darnielle) and the clunky din of indie band Califone’s nonchalant thrumming. The installation at Bellwether suffered from poor soundproofing, and the movies’ audio tracks frequently bled together, making experiencing the work properly a challenge. Though some may find Green’s rough spots charming, he treads perhaps too casually the fine distinction between authentic and merely sloppy.

David Velasco