Saturday, June 10, 2017

Uplandos Art of Bruce Bickford

Legendary animator at Spaceworks Gallery
By Alec Clayton
Faces cut into leaves by Bruce Bickford, photo courtesy Spaceworks Tacoma.
Tacoma’s own Bruce Bickford, the legendary animator famous for his work on the Frank Zappa movie Baby Snakes, has his first Tacoma art exhibit at Spaceworks Gallery, and it’s a doozie. The show includes two animated videos, still frames from many of his animated films, sculptures of clay and of cardboard and paper, drawings executed directly on the gallery walls, and even faces cut into leaves.
To back up a bit: born in Seattle, Bickford started experimenting with clay at the age of 12 or 13 and began making his first animated films at 17. His animation sequences in Baby Snakes won first prize at a French animated film competition. And, as they say, the rest is history.
There are two continuously running films in this exhibition. Prometheus Garden is done in clay animation, and Comic That Frenches Your Mind is done with intricate line drawings made with a fine-point mechanical pencil. Both are surrealistic and comical, with rapidly morphing figures.
His line drawings employ broken lines that are connected in the mind’s eye of the viewer. In some of these drawings the lines break apart so severely that they look like flames blown by wind as the figures appear to vanish in air. His human and animal figures and houses and vehicles (especially sleds; he seems almost obsessed with sleds) are stylistically a lot like the underground comics of the 1960s, and some of his faces remind me of Beavis and Butthead.
The first wall of still frames is a series picturing a man and woman embracing, her legs wrapped around his waist. As they embrace, she reaches for his hip pocket and steals his wallet (or cell phone, it’s hard to tell which). Typical of animation frames, the changes from frame to frame are so minute that at first glance the 32 drawings look identical. Viewing this presents a good lesson in the patience and precision required of cell animation.
Inside the main gallery space are many glass or Plexiglas display cases, and inside of them a series of shelves made of cardboard. On these shelves are hundreds of figures, houses, castles, and fantasy environments, all cartoonish in style, all wildly inventive, and all sculpted in clay or cardboard and paper. Among these is a set of figures of the same man lying on his back with each figure a tiny bit smaller than the one before until the last one is an almost microscopic dot. At this point I should point out that some of his Bickford’s line drawings and clay sculptures were used in animated films and others were not. If this diminishing man was used in a film, we can see how as he gets smaller and smaller he would appear, on film, to be getting farther and farther away.
“Spring Evening a Comic Strip by Edvard Munch” is a line drawing depicting the character from Munch’s “The Scream” on a bridge where street artists are at work and a loving couple walks by arm-in-arm. A town is seen in the background, including a church with a giant steeple that looks like a dunce cap. The sky above is a take-off on van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Next to this one is an untitled drawing of a training camp for mercenary soldiers with print that describes the mercenaries as “rich, pampered, arrogant ignorant brutes.”
On the wall behind the monitor playing Comic That Frenches Your Mind is a set of 24 frame drawings from the film, and filling two entire walls are frames from a not-yet-produced film called Vampire Picnic.
This is one of the more astonishing art exhibitions you’re likely to see this year. The artist will be in the gallery on closing night, Third Thursday Art Wall, June 15.
Uplandos, 1-5 p.m., Monday-Friday and 1-9 p.m. Third Thursday, through June 15, Spaceworks Gallery, 950 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.

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