“An artist in perpetual motion, Len Lye” is a retrospective at ACMI’s screen gallery. Filmmaker, poet, painter and kinetic sculptor or should that be kinetic sculptor, filmmaker, photographer, batik artist and doodler? There are many sides to the work of Len Lye.
I have seen Len Lye’s art in various exhibitions, art fairs and museums for the past two decades. Sometimes in surprising places like in the Belgium Centre for Comic Strips where he is noted for his pioneering abstract color animation. One year at the Melbourne Art Fair the gonging from his sculpture could be heard around the Exhibition building at regular intervals. Len Lye was this strange phenomenon of an artist going off in all directions simultaneously.
The Len Lye retrospective at ACMI helped me to get a view of this moving subject. Even as I looked at the exhibition I didn’t know if I was going to write about Lye’s connection with the Dadaist filmmakers, his kinetic sculpture, his interest in indigenous art or something completely different.
The exhibition, as you might expect from ACMI, shows many of Lye’s short experimental films. Lye’s short animated films with their jazz soundtracks are enjoyable to watch, there is plenty of movement and color. The exhibition also displays some film stock, the tools and techniques that Lye used to create them. Len Lye’s ‘direct filmmaking’ techniques of scratching and painting on the film owe their freedom to Dadaist’s like Man Ray, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling. Lye was in contact with major European avant-garde filmmakers as early as 1929. Before this exhibition I didn’t know about his connections with Dadaist filmmaker Hans Richter, demonstrated by Lye’s photogram of Richter in 1947 and a group photograph including Lye and Richter from 1929.
The artistic freedom and novelty of abstract kinetic sculptures, combining movement with geometry, was a high modernist ideal. Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures are amongst greatest kinetic sculptures along with the mobiles of Alexander Calder. The formal beauty of Lye’s sculptures in motion can be easily appreciated in the large dark space of the screen gallery; they are well light and the moving steel sculptures stands out against the dark walls.
There was surprise of the exhibition, for me, as I am interested in the history of stencils in art due to Melbourne’s stencil art. Len Lye used stencils in his ‘direct filmmaking’ techniques used in Rainbow Dance, 1936 and also in Musical Poster, 1942. Lye used both metal (tin or lead sheet metal) and paper stencils. Using stencils allowed Lye to paint repeating patterns onto celluloid film. Lye also used stencils and sprayed lacquer on plywood in Ice Age, 1938.
After this free major retrospective exhibition I now have a much better appreciation of the art of Len Lye. This is not a review of the retrospective exhibition; there are so many facets of Lye’s art in this exhibition that someone else will find different topics to focus on. The subject of Len Lye keeps on moving.