Home is where the heart jumps into the throat. This could well be the motto of the oneiric animation Night Hunter (2011) by Stacey Steers, an artist based in Boulder, Colo. Currently screening at the Denver Art Museum [DAM], the film, with its message of anxious domesticity, is also visible in miniature and in snippets through the windows of an accompanying 6-foot-tall Victorian dollhouse. Four years and 4,000 meticulously hand-wrought collages went into the making of the 15-minute-long animation.
Cut-up and reassembled 18th- and 19th-century engraved book illustrations depicting dense forests, teeming arts-and-crafts wallpaper and brooding interiors become settings for the resurrected silent film star Lillian Gish, who sews and cooks but also contends with giant worms, swarming moths, a menacing snake and proliferating eggs. Gish’s emotionally labile features and gestures register fear, disgust, boredom and horror. “I’ve always loved Broken Blossoms,” Steers told A.i.A., referring to the 1919 Gish vehicle by D.W. Griffith, one of four film sources from which she extracted her heroine. “I only used shots of Gish from the torso up in order to get images of her that are in focus. But I make it look as if you see her whole body.”
It was Gish’s expressiveness that Steers sought following her cooler, similarly labor-intensive and widely exhibited 10-minute animation, Phantom Canyon (2006), which appropriated more dispassionate images by Eadweard Muybridge.
While many animations are produced “under the camera,” Steers glues everything into collages ahead of time, either on paper or film, a technique that produces a quality of “breathing,” in which elements seem to shimmer. “I’m phobic about machines,” explained Steers, who dislikes the idea of having to completely re-create scenes if the camera malfunctions in any way. “I’m protected from the mistakes I might make, and I also like the artwork to be preserved.” (In fact, eight framed collages accompany the dollhouse installation.) For every second of screen time, Steers had to produce at least eight distinct collages. She cites Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell and William Kentridge as stylistic influences.
Night Hunter is mainly black-and-white, but with touches of color that course through the elements like blood through a body. Objects throb and pulse. The eggs, for example, are tinted with a pale yellow that comes and goes, so that they seem to vibrate. Eventually they crack open to release a flock of fantastic, blurry birds.
The feeling of a creaturely takeover is enhanced by a score by Larry Polansky consisting of fragmented music-box plinking along with miscellaneous stirrings and rustlings. “The spookier the animal, the more images you can find for it,” Steers remarked; such plenitude allowed for a great deal of variety in animated movement.
The film has screened elsewhere previously (including, earlier this year, in the “New Directors, New Films” series at the Museum of Modern Art and Walter Reade Theater in New York), but this is its unique iteration in the dollhouse, which Steers built with the help of Mark Sofield, a local architect. There it unfolds amid specimens of moths and tiny eggs, among other props that echo the film’s imagery. Night Hunter and Night Hunter House remain on view at DAM through Aug. 14. The dollhouse installation has just been acquired by Colorado collector and DAM patrons Kent and Vicki Logan, and will be donated to the museum, pending board approval.