By Robert Fones
As a child, I learned from a book on cartooning that my mother bought me that a cartoon character’s body could be distorted or exaggerated to express astonishment or alarm. I vividly recall an illustration in the book of a character with eyes popped out, jaw dropped to the navel, and the whole body stretched vertically. I also saw this physical distortion in the cartoons I watched on television after school. When Wile E. Coyote tries to drop a boulder on Roadrunner, his own feet are accidentally tied to the boulder. The boulder and his feet plunge to the bottom of the canyon while his head remains near the precipice, still registering the shock and dismay of his mistake. Perhaps this is why, when I first saw Michael Snow’s print 1956, A Videoprint (1974), I saw it in terms of a cartoon sequence.
The structure of 1956, four images across, four images down, arranged in a grid, suggests a sequence that can be read from left to right, top to bottom, following the conventions of reading text and comic-book panels. Each panel – to use the comic-book term for a single frame – of 1956 is in the shape of a 1950s-style rounded rectangular television screen and depicts the image of a modernist bent-metal tubing chair sitting on a Persian carpet. Something is plugged into a wall outlet, probably the flood lamp that illuminates the chair and casts a shadow of it onto the wall behind. But each image is different.
The image in the first panel on the upper left is normal, but all subsequent images are distorted to varying degrees. In the second panel, the chair appears to react to something in front of it; its back stretches up to the top of the screen. Then, in panel three, it dips its right foot toward the bottom; it pulls both feet back in panel four; in panel five, it dips its left foot down. The sequence continues, getting a bit crazier, with the last two panels on the bottom right the most wildly distorted…
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