MoMA presents the Quay Brothers' work as much more than a cabinet of curiosities

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The Quay Brothers with the set of Street of 'Crocodiles.' (Courtesy the filmmakers.)
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Stephen and Timothy Quay are perhaps best known for some of their least important work.

The identical twins, typically referred to as “the Quay Brothers,” created some excellent but brief stop-animation Art Break films for MTV in the 1980s, leading to a host of music videos in the 1990s. (They also provided the animation for Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit “Sledgehammer” video, in which they can be briefly glimpsed among the group of people rotating around the singer toward the video’s end.)

But they've also been working steadily as filmmakers, animators, illustrators, and set designers since the early 1970s, and an exhibit titled On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, the new retrospective of their work on view at the Museum of Modern Art (through Jan. 7, 2013), makes a compelling case that their greatest achievement has been as interpreters and disseminators of Eastern European literary figures like Bruno Schulz and Franz Kafka.

One of the first objects that greets a visitor to the exhibition backs this up: an aquarium-diorama containing a sparse depiction of a scene from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—the transformed Gregor Samsa concealing his grotesque vermin body under a couch—effectively distills the story’s dread and disgust into a singularly visceral snow-globe. The Metamorphosis was completed only this year, but it is of a piece with the Quay Brothers' oeuvre, which has been at once remarkably consistent in its thematic obsessions and remarkably varied in its methods and mediums.

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The quarter-century-old The Street of the Crocodiles (1986), a stop-motion short, is perhaps the Quay Brothers’ cinematic calling card and a kind of centerpiece of the MOMA show. Inspired by the eponymous collection of linked stories by Bruno Schulz (first issued in 1934), Street lacks traditional plot and character, instead conveying the atmosphere of Schulz’s slightly surrealist, sadly whimsical world and his young protagonist’s impressions of his mad father, his ever-patient mother, and the oddly magical streets of his Galician town. Like much of the Quays' work, whatever the genre, Street is a masterful concentration of feeling, an eye-catching exploration of moods that range from the joyous to the melancholy. It does not present a story in any conventional way, and in this way aspires for and achieves the status of art.

The MOMA survey, curated by Ron Magliozzi, an associate curator in the museum’s Department of Film, both exploits and extends this combination of the lively and the eerie in the Brothers’ work.

The exhibit is divided in two. Part I, displayed in the Michael H. Dunn Gallery on the museum’s second floor, showcases the Brothers’ preparatory materials and props: drawings, sketches, collages, puppets, and installation-like “decors”—like They Think They’re Alone, (1987, pictured below, made for the film Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies). The decors are described by the curatorial wall labels as “three-dimensional still lifes” with a resemblance to “Surrealist architectural models or avant-garde stage designs,” as well as to “Renaissance wunderkammern” and Victorian “peephole contraptions.” Included in this section also are a number of short videos and various archival materials, including a generous sampling from the Brothers’ impressive collection of Polish surrealist posters. Part II consists of a film series, presented in nine programs, screening in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater.

The organizing principle, according to Magliozzi’s remarks following the press preview last week, was “indecipherability.” (Dubbing the show “a Quay multiplex,” the curator repeatedly returned to the idea of a labyrinth or a maze as the key to his and the artists’ vision for the retrospective.) The Quays have a reputation for difficulty, and the retrospective means to dispel this perception without compromising the mystery and confusion that are an integral part of the Brothers’ work. That is, the work is permitted to retain its opacity, even as its amalgamation as part of a single survey allows themes and motifs—dreams, dolls, doppelgangers, among them—to emerge. There is not necessarily an “aha!” moment, when the meaning of the Quays’ work magically reveals itself, but, as the visitor moves from screen to decor to drawing, its collective significance becomes undeniable.

Magliozzi previously curated the Tim Burton retrospective at MOMA, presenting the work of another filmmaker known for his eccentricity and his stylistic flourishes. But the Burton show was, on the whole, far more linear, its arc much easier to discern, than the treatment given to the Quays. This show is messier, deliberately flaunting confusion as an asset.

Some of this confusion is surely the Brothers’ own, stemming from finding themselves part of a full-scale retrospective at a major museum. (Magliozzi noted that “the Quays did not set out to be gallery artists.”) The Brothers’ commercial work—those music videos, for one thing, as well as commercials for, say, a Comme des Garçons fragrance, set designs for theatrical productions, animated interludes contributed to wide-release movies, like Frida, the Salma Hayek-produced Kahlo biopic—might, for some people anyway, complicate the perception of their status as artists. But they are also hardly just crowd pleasers in the manner of someone like Tim Burton, and their path through the film world cannot be deemed straightforward.

The Quays describe themselves as accidental filmmakers, their first foray occasioned by an invitation to apply for a grant by the British Film Institute in 1979. The resulting short, Nocturna Artificialia, which secured the grant, is screened as part of the show (and viewable below). It introduces the techniques and the interests that thread succeeding films: the interspersing of black-and-white with color sequences, the uncanny uncertainty of dreams and the ambiguity of time’s passing, the use of shadows, the emphasis on atmosphere, on intuition and impression, the Surrealist refusal of definitive symbols combined with a clinician’s dissecting eye for detail.

The Quays' full-length features—the live-action Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream Which People Call Human Life (1995), based on Robert Walser’s novel, Jakob von Gunten, and the animated The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005, pictured below)—build on and expand the ambiance of the shorts, suggesting a renewed commitment to the influences and interests that have driven the Quay Brothers from the start. But even as the show works to expose these influences and interests, it insists on the Brothers’ idiosyncrasies as a badge of courage, their singularity as a raison d’être.

The Quays describe their approach and their signature aesthetic as “a gentle assault to reopen eyes." The notion of something made strange in order to engage the viewer’s full attention is hardly a new one. A group of early 20th century critics known as the Russian Formalists notably held that the goal of art should be to defamiliarize, to retrain perception, to knock vision off its rote path. The Quay Brothers’ work, including their more recent live-action films, does this through unexpected angles, colors, shadows, and symbols, but it also consistently extracts what is most excitingly unfamiliar about the works of the “literary misfits” (in the Quays’ own words) who inspire them. In their condensation of the playful and the uncanny, they produce something lovely, poetic, dark—a little terrifying and quite thrilling.

As it is laid out by “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets,” the Quays’ singular accomplishment is to blend these peculiarities into something simultaneously complicated and coherent, into a worldview that is distinctly and distinctively revelatory.

Their drawings, dioramas, and stage designs, and of course their film works, crystallize the strange in the familiar and elucidate the familiar in the strange. More than just about any MOMA show in recent memory, this elegant, lucid survey of the Brothers’ work is an experience in the accessibility of difficulty and the vigors and vagaries of vision.

'On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets,' the Quay Brothers' retrospective, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 7, 2013. All images courtesy the filmmakers; photograph of 'They Think They’re Alone,' by Robert Barker, Cornell University.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly credited the Quay Brothers with directing videos by the band Tool.