SAN DIEGO — When motion pictures were new, at the turn of the 20th century, a director at Edison's studios made a short film showing an artist working at an easel. His painting of the sun lifted off the canvas and overheated the room until he was able to capture it and dunk it in a bucket of water. The theme is as ancient as the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea: artist creates an image and the static image comes to life.
That 1904 film, "Animated Painting," shares a title and a bit of its conceptual underpinning with a new exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art. The show gathers two dozen works of animation by 13 international artists and one collective who, in the most basic terms, combine multiple still frames to create the illusion of movement. The artists -- from Spain, South Africa, Thailand, England, China, Germany, Argentina, the Netherlands and the U.S. -- expand broadly upon that simple definition of animation, while staying true to a deeper sense of the word (investing something with life, soul, mind) and aspiring to capture its metaphorical power.
Takeshi Murata's five-minute loop begins with a single throbbing pink dot that gives way to a phantasmagoric, painterly, pixelated riff on Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. At the more meditative end of the spectrum, Ann Lislegaard's "Bellona (after Samuel R. Delany)" sends viewers through an enigmatic labyrinth of luminous, ever-changing hues.
"I wanted to stay away from Pixar and Disney image code and the languages they developed through cartooning," curator Betti-Sue Hertz said of organizing the show. "I wanted artists who were linked to deeper tradition. I was less interested in narrative and storytelling per se than in the moving image as a somatic experience. I was interested in how animation had been filtering slowly into the contemporary art scene, so I chose people who were active in that sphere, who identify as contemporary artists rather than animators."
Many, but not all of the artists use digital software that has become as common an image-making tool as a pencil or paintbrush, Hertz said.
"Animation in the commercial industry and mainstream media is permeating everything, more and more. If you turn the TV on, pretty much every commercial is a combination of live action and animation. It's in the mainstream culture on a daily basis, and artists are saying, 'What can I do with these techniques, these technologies? How can I push them into a more subtle language?' "
While the influence of popular media is evident throughout the show -- as it is throughout contemporary art in general -- so is the influence of Abstract Expressionism, mural painting, graffiti, Light and Space art, and surrealism.
The show includes an equal number of straight projections and installation works, pieces where imagery is projected onto multiple surfaces and unusual structures. Julian Opie's schematic images of walking figures appear on LED film boxes mounted in the museum's front parking lot. Wit Pimkanchanapong's 21-second animation, "Test Sequence," plays in one gallery, while the 8,000 printed sheets of paper that went into the making of the film hang from the ceiling throughout the show like a scalloped canopy, an unbound flip book.
With artists addressing alienation, violence, spectacle, gender issues, politics and history, the show becomes, said Hertz, "a map of issues and ideas and concerns that are flowing through contemporary society." It aims to be provocative, but also highly accessible.
Drawing on the everyday
Imagery might at first seem familiar, like something seen on television or online. "But as you stay with the work and consider what it's saying back to you," Hertz said, "you have a different experience than what you initially thought you would. It doesn't take long to sense that this work is not like 'The Simpsons' or 'Fantasia.' But it's not unlike them. It's abstracted."
The artists, she continued, adopt animation techniques "and push the envelope in terms of what they can do that 'fine art' has always aspired to -- deep feeling, refinement, sensitivity, social critique."
Self-reflexivity is another attribute of art that often plays a dominant role in animation. The medium not only brings static imagery to life but often makes the process of transformation visible. William Kentridge, at 52 the patriarch of the current crop of artists using animation (nearly all in the show are in their 30s and 40s), originally turned to film in order to record the stages of his charcoal drawings as they evolved. In his animations, history operates at every level: Images on paper appear, shift and transmute as personal, political and fictional stories unfold.
The exhibition features his 2003 film "Tide Table," an introspective, often lyrical work with a dark undercurrent. Additions and erasures make for fluid interplay between action, imagination, representation and memory. That interplay deepens and destabilizes the sense of reality.