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December 2011: George Kuchar @ MoMA PS1

Installation view, George Kuchar: Pagan Rhapsodies, MoMA PS1, 2011. Photo by: Matthew Septimus.

George Kuchar: Pagan Rhapsodies
MoMA PS1
November 20, 2011—January 15, 2012

George Kuchar died this year, leaving behind a treasure-trove of films starring his friends, students, and himself. George Kuchar: Pagan Rhapsodies is a retrospective of the low budget filmmaker’s work. Homespun and artful, the aesthetic of Kuchar’s otherworldly films has influenced countless film provocateurs, from Tim Burton to David Lynch. 

At the front of the exhibition, a red carpet leads up to a full-sized screen playing the film Ascension of the Demonoids (1985). The film begins with three shirtless travelers sharing a hotel room, one sitting up, one laying on the floor, and one on a bed. “All three of us, stripped of our pretenses…” the narrator begins. The monolog is a fitting introduction to Kuchar. His work is dead pan, bleak, intimate, silly, sexy… everything but pretentious. Ascension of the Demonoids depicts a working stiff who just wants to get away. After a confusing but visually mesmerizing encounter with an old woman and a sexy gypsy that may be an alien, the protagonist ends up in Hawaii standing on a rock in the ocean, watching waves smash the rocks and erupt in pillars of foam. Like most of Kuchar’s films, the plot features fantastical asides that delve into alien interventions and mysticism.

Although the films are clearly low-budget, Kuchar’s craftsmanship is so meticulous and clever that it’s beautiful. In one shot, a character stares in horror at a UFO in the sky. The UFO is obviously painted onto a sheet of glass that the character looks at, but the shot is turned into a work of art by the angle, lighting, and colors. Even the film’s title screen, shots of 3-dimensional letters with colored lights flashed on them, is lovingly crafted and builds excitement for the film in a way that harkens back to the golden age of filmmaking. Another standout in Pagan Rhapsodies is the film Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966). Although the plot is mostly inscrutable, it appears to tell the story of a bespectacled loner (played by Kuchar) who lives with his mother. The protagonist laments the sexual escapades of the other young people in his apartment building (which may in fact be imagined by the protagonist) but are nevertheless rendered for us in Kuchar’s technicolor style that is equal parts voyeurism and Wizard of Oz: a half-clothed couple playfully makes out in a shower; a guy and a girl go at it under a swinging light bulb that somehow changes the tint of the room between red, blue, and green. The film ends with Kuchar sitting at his mother’s table, his hair wrapped in a towel that makes him look bandaged. He looks into the camera and says, “There’s a lot of things in life worth living for, isn’t there.”

In addition to Kuchar’s films, Pagan Rhapsodies features many of his watercolor paintings and comic strips. His artwork displays a tight draftsmanship and an amazing use of color. Kuchar’s works on paper are evidence that the visual delights of his films are rooted in serious artistic practice. They also reveal his life-long obsession with aliens and science fiction.  Kuchar explored human emotions in a way that was wholly his own. Although his films portray the bleakness of reality, they also shine a ray on humdrum situations that fills them with wonder. There’s nothing quite like this strange, mesmerizing exhibition.

Installation view, George Kuchar: Pagan Rhapsodies, MoMA PS1, 2011. Photo by Matthew Septimus

George Kuchar, Chowdown in El Reno, 9 x 12" watercolor on paper, 1976, Courtesy ADA gallery
 

Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski is a writer and artist in Brooklyn. He runs the small publisher On Lives Press and is currently working on a collection of short fiction.

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