Old movies, new frames: Antiquated movie stills find new life at Renaissance Society exhibition

(courtesy of The Renaissance Society)

In the silent and shadowy light of the Renaissance Society’s gallery space, the subjects of Matt Saunders’ portraits seem to want to say something. The headshots that are part of Saunders’ show “Parallel Plots” stare out at the viewer inquiringly, even demandingly. Breaking the stillness, three animated videos running on loop constantly flicker on the gallery walls.

Saunders thinks of films as “texts which are always in the air, in the back of our minds,” and his animated pieces play much the same role in the space of the Renaissance Society: their movement is inescapable. Bursts of black-white-black in the gallery come from the animated films as they switch back and forth almost painfully between negative and positive images. There is none of the smooth progression of frames expected from animation. Instead, the sense of movement here is chaotic–the jumps between frames are sudden, obvious, jarring.

Collectively titled “Passage Works,” these films are, in Saunders’ mind, the driving force behind the show. They are projected in two directions–both out into the hallway, luring viewers in, and inside the gallery itself. “I imagined walking inside of a film,” he says of the spaces. The arrangement of constant movement that Saunders created with these films pervades the gallery so thoroughly that even when looking at the still works, a progression of images never stops invading at the corners of the viewer’s eyes.

Saunders is a painter, but in “Parallel Plots” painting is part of a more complex process. Using photographs of obscure actors from the early days of film as references, Saunders draws his own film positives on mylar, retaining some of the integrity of each photo while adding brushstrokes and painted textures. He then takes the positives and makes either contact prints or enlargements, resulting in photographs that look like altered negatives. The works are recognizably both paintings and photographs–a somewhat disconcerting feeling for the viewer used to art that is easily classifiable by media. Saunders cites this tense interplay between the two mediums as a major inspiration for the show. The hybrid creations that result are almost all unframed, producing an effect of intermediacy and incompleteness, much as the films in the space are collections of moving images, but never quite movies.

Even as he deals directly with the physical experience of film, Saunders is not a filmmaker. “My interest in film is really more about how we experience films–how we encounter them, are moved by them, possess them,” he says. And while Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker calls the subjects of Saunders’ work “stars” in his essay on the show, Saunders explains that “if these are celebrities, it’s a very personal and idiosyncratic selection.” The subjects of the portraits are not easily recognizable because the artist intentionally picked mostly unknown figures from the history of film; the subjects’ obscurity changes the effect of their presence. They become what sanders calls “performances caught in amber, but also living things that you can watch and re-watch and experience in the present.”

For “Parallel Plots,” the Renaissance Society has become a space directly inflected with this simultaneous experience of film, photography, and painting. The viewer is involved, if only by stepping in front of the projector. But more than that, the forgotten stars, their faces staring out in still images from the walls and flickering against them in film, require constant attention.
Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through April 11. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)702-8670. renaissancesociety.org