Step into the surreal, unnerving world of James Duesing's animations. | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Step into the surreal, unnerving world of James Duesing's animations.


Creature comforts: James Duesing's "Tender Bodies"
  • Creature comforts: James Duesing's "Tender Bodies"

A skilled artist can conjure up connections with contemporaries and predecessors from many practices while remaining very much his own. In five animated shorts on view at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, James Duesing calls on the same terrors, longings and guilty passions that have proven consummate artistic resources in many disciplines, without doing anything discernibly worn-out. His work, with its sinister intonations and artful rendering, put my mind to Peter Saul, David Cronenberg and The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, to name just a few, but always reeled it back to what was distinctly James Duesing.  

Duesing, who teaches electronic and time-based art at Carnegie Mellon University, has exhibited his films internationally. The PCA program begins with the most recent, 2003's "Tender Bodies," and then runs from 1983's "Impetigo" onward to work of the '90s. Peculiar elements recur. Duesing often favors one or more bird-like creatures as major characters, and human beings coexist and converse with humanoid mutants and real or invented talking animals. Cars are casually used as assault weapons, and acts of extreme violence, including chemical fires, surgical lacerations and attacks by giant house cats, are perpetrated and responded to with indifference.

The palette changes over time. The earlier hand-drawn works stick to ruddy earth tones or bright, yellowy pastels. In the later computer-generated pieces, beginning with the still-flat-looking "Maxwell's Demon," Duesing seems to exploit the diversity of hues and textures available from graphics programs, adopting a greater range and almost garish levels of saturation.  

The sound, which is simple, rhythmic, subterranean banging in the earlier work, eventually becomes carefully produced mimicry. Every action, whether galloping hooves or breaking glass, is made distinctly audible, any background music kept unobtrusive. Visually, the environments start to look less barren, with more vegetation on the ground and sleek, plush furnishing in the interior settings. The characters, too, eventually become heavier and more modeled. Instead of bending like rubber, they lunge and lumber like they're carrying weight, which only adds to the visceral creepiness when they start to stroke or lick or chew on one another.

Not that it's all cannibalism and conflagration. Except in the mostly wordless "Tender Bodies," Duesing's colorful casts spend a great deal of time ruminating, reflecting, or otherwise interacting, in the skewed dialogue of banal small talk or hyped-up consumer jibberish. In "Impetigo," as two hybridized bipeds take a stroll, one squawks to the other, "At first the relationship seemed tawdry, but now it seems so elegant!" The sighing, partial-sequitur response is, "How much stupidity can one person squeeze into a lifetime?"  

While sometimes the viewer is left wondering what their off-kilter banter really means, it is more pertinent that characters never seem to question each other. Everyone and everything is ultimately complicit in the grand charade, in a baroque amalgam of Huxley and Beckett, inflected with the obligatory Freud and Jung.  

Psychosexual meanderings have long been a narrative mainstay of underground sequential art and cartooning, as well as some of the more gallery-friendly fine art that apes it. Whether it is represented by the blustering, anxious deviants of Robert Crumb or Terry Gilliam's prankster infiltration of the bourgeois in his Monty Python animations, the less institutional forms of visual art naturally take advantage of their freedom from censorship, as well as their freedom from precedent.  

Not bounded by compositional standards, Duesing's shorts begin and end abruptly. Their bizarre heroes and villains may vacate the scene, only to return later in a completely different capacity. In "Tugging the Worm," a desperately fleeing humanoid in a neon letterman's jacket suddenly shape-shifts into one of Duesing's bird creatures, and seems to change gender in the process. Consistency and intelligibility, in a welcome relegation, take a backseat to the disjointed procession of the animator's dreamlike imaginings. And we're just passengers on his train.


Videos by James Duesing continue through Aug. 30. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or

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