For more than three decades, Lewis Klahr has been among the most prolific and original avant-garde film and video artists in America, producing over seventy-five works to date. A perennial presence in the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde, Klahr has shown as well in three Whitney Biennials (in 1991, 1995, and 2006) and at the International Film Festival Rotterdam; in 2010, his work was the subject of a retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. A running loop of his films is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through month’s end), and on March 9 and 10 the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will present a substantial program of his digital work, including The Pettifogger (2011), his first feature-length movie, and the world premiere of a new series, the “False Aging” trilogy (2008–12).
Though he has made live-action and found-footage films—mostly in the 1970s and ’80s—Klahr is best known for his cutout movies, in which appropriated images of people, objects, and places culled from a variety of sources are inserted and manipulated in front of the camera, all within an area no larger than a standard sheet of paper. While his films in this mode resemble what other practitioners have labeled “animated collages,” Klahr does not consider himself an animator. He conceives of the screen neither as a painter’s canvas nor as the illusionary three-dimensional field beloved of photography and mainstream cinema. Set against a two-dimensional plane, typically with little perspectival depth, his cutouts are not animated like traditional cartoons but maneuvered into place by hand, their interactions, entrances, and exits controlled moment by moment. Klahr exploits the flatness of his images, though their contextual positioning—e.g., small equals far, big near—often alludes to a “pretend” screen depth. Occasionally, his sound tracks suggest an aural dimension, evoking proximity or distance, but he prefers to keep sounds lo-fi to match the flatness of the visuals. Even popular songs played in their entirety—e.g., those of Frank Sinatra or the Velvet Underground—and excerpts from pieces by Igor Stravinsky or Alban Berg are often treated this way without diminishing their importance to a film’s meaning or mood.
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