New York

Jenny Perlin, The Crystal King, 2016, 16-mm film, color, silent, 3 minutes.

Jenny Perlin, The Crystal King, 2016, 16-mm film, color, silent, 3 minutes.

Jenny Perlin

Simon Preston

Jenny Perlin, The Crystal King, 2016, 16-mm film, color, silent, 3 minutes.

The Child of the Cavern, or Strange Doings Underground is one of more than fifty novels in Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages series from the late nineteenth century. In the story, a miner discovers a young woman in a pit and takes her to the earth’s surface for the first time. Despite her wonder at the world above, she returns happily to her subterranean home, astutely declaring that darkness is as beautiful as light. Artist Jenny Perlin named Verne’s book as the point of departure for her exhibition “The Long Sleepers,” but it was clearly more than that: Like a spirit guide, the narrative directed Perlin to imagine what that emergence from the shadows might look like and how it would be mediated. Verne’s novel was published little more than a decade before the advent of cinema, and the reverberations of his story in those early days of “the Kingdom of Shadows,” as Maksim Gorky described it, clearly did not escape the artist. Each of the pieces that were on view in her exhibition seeks to establish film as the means by which to describe profound depths.

The silent hand-drawn animation Those Are Stars, 2017, pictures how the child of the cavern might have experienced her first sunrise. The shapes are simple and the colors bold: A crescent moon rises, a bird hovers, and a mountain range of zigzag lines descends beneath the frame; meanwhile, the background alternates among saturated purples, pinks, and yellows. Perlin’s use of the Desmet method for adding tint—a technique typically reserved for re-creating the color of old silent films and which involves exposing the film to colored lights after printing—infuses the film’s color scheme with a certain otherworldliness. The animation is also about film: The vertical rectangles of a ladder take on the form of a film strip, and a pulley—another set piece from Verne’s story—mirrors the action of the looper that keeps the short film going.

On an adjacent wall, The Crystal King, 2016, a three-minute 16-mm film made at the Ohio Caverns, set the stage for the underground world. (The title refers to a particularly magisterial stalactite at the caverns, which measures nearly five feet long and is thought to be more than 200,000 years old.) Cunningly, Perlin placed the projector on a low platform, close to the wall, so that the viewer had to crouch to see the film straight on. The position gave one the claustrophobic feeling of cramped quarters much more viscerally than if the image were large, and within the film a series of slow pans reinforces the labyrinthine aspect of the caverns. At one point, a shaky forward movement interrupts the steady stillness—the only indication in the film that the camera is handheld. The action jolts us out of the “geological” time frame and back into the human one. Long Sleepers, 2016, a set of 144 small paintings on paper, sustained this effect by isolating individual frames from the film. Painting a stalactite in a thick impasto of silver and filling the rest of the page with cyan, Perlin transforms each frame into a map—a shimmering landmass in a sea of blue—shifting our position as viewers from below the earth to well above it. But even as the works on paper abstract from their celluloid origin, they subtly assert a metaphorical connection with film. The paper ground shares the proportions of a film frame, and gritty paint recalls the silver halide crystals in film stock. The links between Perlin’s films and drawings allow us to travel from the depths to the sky and back down again—not, as Plato would have it, having been forced to return to the darkness to enlighten our fellow prisoners, but eager to investigate, as Verne’s characters do, those strange doings underground in the realm of moving shadows.

Rachel Churner