The film center at the Museum of Modern Art is not the most conducive setting for contemplating experimental work. To see the current show of selected works by the peripatetic hippie filmmaker and photographer Neelon Crawford, one descends to the museum’s subterranean levels, where digital loops of his 16mm films play in the lobbies outside the theaters. Passing Crawford’s Light Pleasures (1970) as you step off the escalator on your way into a movie, its monochromatic record of light reflecting on the the surface of water seems like little more than upscale wallpaper — the visual equivalent of smooth jazz in an uptown concierge-medicine doctor’s waiting room.
Or maybe it’s appropriate that Light Pleasures is next to an escalator. The loop of the moving staircase is site-specific reinforcement for a film that invokes the cycling of water from air to earth and back again. A similar, even more on-the-nose placement is at the bottom of the escalator leading to the theater on the lower level, where you’ll find the gorgeous two-minute Laredo Sugar Mill (1976). Even in a digital transfer (with which some rightfully have philosophical complaints), the primary-color saturation of the original celluloid makes the reds and yellows look almost wet, oily, while the grain draws out the grit and grime adhering to the features of the namesake mill. Every shot of the enormous machines processing an (unseen) natural product emphasizes chains and gears, turning cylinders and cogs, every link in the montage joining to form a churning circle that mirrors the conveyance of bodies on an escalator, or film through a gate.
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Crawford, the son of modernist painter Ralston Crawford, was based in San Francisco and active as a filmmaker from the late ’60s to the late ’70s. MoMA’s exhibition focuses on a narrow span of his moving image work, drawing most prominently from films made on trips to South America between 1973 and 1976. These “moving paintings” presage his eventual decision to turn to still images. Most emphatically, the exhibition showcases a suite of films which straddle the man/nature dichotomy established by the two escalator loops, drawing out the abstract pictorial qualities of the organic world and the photochemical process of film, and exploring the uneasy implications of the relationship between the two.
Curators Ron Magliozzi and Brittany Shaw have installed four of Crawford’s South American films on one wall in a double diptych arrangement. In KMK Cane (1976) and Banana Leaves (1977), bright green grasses and dappled, almost translucent fronds wave in the breeze in rapturous Malickian close-up against a backdrop of bright blue sky. In a lysergic touch, it’s sometimes difficult to tell Crawford’s use of superimposition and double exposure from the hazy reflections of bright sunlight on the lens. Next to them are Ship Side Steel Plate Lights (1974) and Lago Agrio Gas Burn (1977), which hit you with elemental images of fire and water. Ship Side Steel Plate Lights, with its dance of shimmering sunlight and rippling water, recalls Light Pleasures, except over an ominous metallic-gray backdrop pocked with welds and rivets. Lago Agrio Gas Burn records the red-yellow billow of flames. Seen against a neutral black-night backdrop, the flames are a pretty picture, in that familiar doctor’s office way. But Crawford pushes back against the wallpaper trap with shots of the flames pouring forth from a pipe and consuming themselves against an edenic green backdrop similar to the biome of KMK Cane and Banana Leaves.
The longest film in the installation, at 11 minutes, is 1974’s La Selva (“The Jungle”), in which the camera peers downward out airplane windows onto vistas of lush river valleys, or upwards at the sun through rainforest canopies. It offers views of rain falling on the mud, snakes coiling in the grass, villagers chopping cane or paddling canoes. It feels like reportage, albeit of the experiential kind. Crawford uses a number of photographic effects, particularly solarization and shifts between color and black and white, to convey the entire spectrum of visual potential under different conditions of exposure.
Depending on which projector you’re standing under when facing the wall with Banana Leaves and Lago Agrio Gas Burn, the ambient audio is either the chirp of crickets or the roar of flames. The effect is accusatory and self-conscious; in making these films, Crawford is himself arguably participating in the mechanical extraction of images from the Global South. (Though given that his camera of choice was a Bolex, this would make him literally a small-bore operator more than a wildcat driller.) These works are aligned to the earliest traditions of cinema, in which exotic locations and the novel technology itself were equal attractions to viewers. But La Selva especially undercuts any claims of ethnography by drawing attention to the apparatus of filmmaking. Like much of Crawford’s work, it’s a perceptual record, sensitive to the vibrations of both message and medium.
Neelon Crawford: Filmmaker is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through Spring 2022.