Artist's shimmering painted films shed light

'I see Stan Brakhage - and so do many of my colleagues in the department of film and video here at MoMA - as one of the major American artists of the late 20th century. We feel his work is deeply significant, extraordinarily beautiful, and quite prolific. We do think he is one of the key non-narrative film artists working today."

- Laurence Kardish, senior film curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City

Stan Brakhage follows in a long line of great artists whose concerns have revolved around the nature and qualities of light. The award-winning artist has taken a strange course - unlike his predecessors, Mr. Brakhage paints on film.

He has worked in many forms, including scratching black leader (blank film) and collage (gluing objects to film). But at the moment he is painting on 16-mm clear film. Each image is the size of a thumbnail.

Imagine watching an Abstract Expressionist painting that moves quickly, slowly, and quickly through time in varying rhythms - what Brakhage calls "moving visual thinking" - lit up like stained glass on a bright day, and you get some idea of what it's like to watch a Brakhage film.

And stained glass is the right allusion. For him, each work is an act of faith as well as an act of art. He makes films the way he sang as a boy soloist in the Episcopal Church - "I sang for God," he says.

He has just completed a new work inspired by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And as in the hymns he sang as a child, there is "yearning for the ineffable" expressed in each, he says.

He has been inventing new techniques to accommodate his expression of profound spiritual feeling. He paints on clear film leader and feeds it through an optical printer, photographing frame by frame, lingering over one frame here, another there, making visual rhythms. He shines a beam of light on the film from different directions - varied to bring out the textures of the paint itself. So the sand of Bethlehem can be seen by the grains of paint, or water in the desert, or the desert landscape itself - but only suggested, because this is not a narrative work nor is it pictorial. No one frame is a complete image - it requires the frames that came before it and the ones that come after to make a complete image, he says. He knows exactly how long it takes for a color or a shape to fade in the eye's memory.

Unlike religious paintings or films that depict a day in the life of Jesus, these films do not objectify the man. They extend empathy to Jesus by suggesting his own vision - as if we could look through his eyes. Thus in "Baby Jesus," the consciousness of wood (the manger), of bright green, and of animal forms flick past, barely registering and certainly never as cartoon image.

In "Christ On Cross," the merest consciousness of Renaissance drawing - of wood grain, a bowed head, a sense of human turmoil - is followed by a breath of the infinite in color and in deep white space. "It is an investigation of my own religious feeling rooted firmly in childhood memories. When I was 3, I saw a creche with a baby in it ... a baby born in deplorable circumstances. And I had been born in an orphan's home. I had a strong feeling of kinship with him."

The art is abstract, pure form painting that is elegant, sophisticated, and inspiring. The films suggest there is more to experience than we perceive, and they leave room for the viewer's own response.

The transcendent quality of his hand-painted films stays with the viewer: They retain a breathtaking freshness, their formal elegance burning powerful color and delicate grace into the imagination.

But always the physical fact of light points beyond itself in their work to something greater. From Caravaggio and the Impressionists to Abstract Expressionists and Brakhage, investigating the light and expressing the qualities of light can be a lifelong obsession.

"For me, when I work with clear leader, every mark I make has to be dedicated to making that [pure] light more visible," says Brakhage. "I must not put anything on that film that isn't a strengthening of the light."

In Jesus' Name,' 'Baby Jesus,' and 'Jesus Wept, plus coda (Christ On Cross),' are at MoMA through tomorrow, and at the Millennium Film Workshop in New York on Sunday. Stan Brakhage is scheduled to attend both events.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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