Editor’s note: I’m reposting this piece because the Huntington extended the John Frame show until June 27th, thanks to its tremendous success. I just went to the show myself, and it’s simply extraordinary. You have to go.
There are many amazing things about the beautiful, intricate and strange John Frame gallery show, Three Fragments of a Lost Tale, at the Huntington. I could list his intense dedication, artistry and craft; describe the surreal, quirky, Bosch-meets-steampunk-and-the-Williams (Blake and Morris) aesthetic of the exhibit; go on about the intimacy and grandeur of his enigmatic figures and the film they were made for, all in the service of the true artist’s vision that John Frame had about four years ago.
It is the very siting of this show that is for me one of its most amazing qualities. In high contrast to the sunny, open, noisy, burgeoning gardens of the Huntington, for this near-monochrome show the Boone Gallery is kept in semi-darkness, with low-wattage spotlights on Frame’s installations. Some of his creations are in boxes, others on open pedestals, and there is one amazing altar-like tableaux. It is a remarkable way to get the viewer to slow down and look carefully, and the longer you stay there, your eyes and mind adjusting to the conditions around you, the more you see.
Though the show is intensely narrative, there are no titles to help you orient yourself. You are presented with, say, an enigmatic mole-like miniature man, perhaps 12 inches tall, dressed as a workingman from the English countryside circa 1830, shoulders hunched, tiny glass eyes holding yours. There is no context, no background – just a fully realized little mannequin holding a scythe-like object, and you, in the gloaming. It is as if you met him in the midst of a balladeer’s dream – and indeed you have.
Wandering through the show, at first you inspect the marionette-like figures, admiring the tiny jointed ivory fingers, the carved and molded faces, the tiny stitching on the clothing, the visible strings that move limbs, almost as if you are looking at found objects in a gloomy antiques store. Imperceptibly, you are drawn into the story, noticing motifs like broken legs, rabbits, beds and eyes, branches and skulls that repeat among the figures.
I made up my own tales and was challenged at every turn with presentations that run the gamut from optimistic star-gazer to a memento-mori scene straight out of some Luddite hell. The gallery also offers a documentary on Frame’s process and the stop-action film he made with the figures in the show (a prelude to a long-form piece). Having viewed the videos, you can make your way back through the show with somewhat more understanding – but you will still wonder as you wander.
In a way, this show could only be at the Huntington. It replicates for us mere mortals the scholarly thrill of what it must feel like to go into the bowels of a dark treasure trove – like the Library, or one’s own subconscious – lingering there until inspiration and meaning compel us to share our vision.
John Frame: Three Fragments of a Lost Vision
March 12- June 20
The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, 626.405-2100, huntington.org