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Leaving the press preview for MoMA’S retrospective, Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets was like emerging from an alternate reality suffused with hidden meanings and surreal images that like a powerful dream, is at once evocative and unsettling. Known for exploring themes of sex and violence among others, the work of identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay spans 30 years of “avant-garde stop motion puppet animation, live action films and graphic design that challenge easy categorization.”

moma-street.jpgTailor’s Shop, decor for the film Street of Crocodiles. 1986. Wood, glass, plaster, and fabric, 35 7⁄16 × 26 × 30 5⁄16″ (90 × 66 × 77 cm). Photograph Robert Barker, Cornell University

Those not familiar with the Quay Brothers by name may recognize some of their work in popular culture. In collaboration with the Aardman Animation team, under the direction of Stephen R. Johnson they were responsible for all the animation scenes done for the music video for Peter Gabriel’s song Sledgehammer. My own introduction to their work was through the 1987 film Tale of the Brothers Quay later followed by the exhibit Dormitorium: Film Decors by the Quay Brothers at a small gallery. Neither prepared me for the sheer breadth and quality of work presented in this exhibition. To my extreme delight among the 300 pieces of work featured were personal photographs, early paintings, illustrations and films were included in addition to the “miniature décor boxes” I had seen previously.

moma-hundsproce.jpgHundsproceß. Hartmut Lange. c. 1980. Transfer type and acrylic on board, 13 1/2 x 9 3/4” (34.3 x 24.8 cm). Image courtesy of the Quay Brothers

Tracing their careers from early student work in the late 1960s to the present with a nod to the influences of painter Rudolf Freund’s illustrations in Scientific American and Life Magazine and Polish posters by artists such as Wojciech Zamecznik, this exhibition marks the first ever major retrospective of the Brothers work which encompasses an astonishing range of drawing, painting, design, film and installations.

moma-mazeppa.jpgMazzepa, set design. 1991. Nederlands Opera, Amsterdam/Bregenzer Festspiele, Bergenz. Photograph Quay Brothers

Asked by Peter Reed, Senior Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, The Museum of Modern Art to explain the generous inclusion of early influences in the exhibition Timothy Quay replied that their studio “abounds in [a] reflective glow of influences.” Stephen Quay expanded on this saying of Freund that “…it was the first time we met an artist of the kind of caliber who set that sort of high tone” and describing the posters as revealing an “other imaginative realm that bristled with energy and typography.”

moma-institutaben.jpgInstitute Benjamenta. 1995. UK. Quay Brothers. Image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Designed in collaboration by the Quays and show organizer Ron Magliozzi, Associate Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art, the physical format of the installation is intended to echo the twins’ professional creative journey which they described as alternately as having been “unpredictable” and “a maze.” In addition to the installation, a film series including twice monthly screenings “organized to encourage an appreciation of their versatility across a range of moving image genres” accompanies the exhibition.

For established Quay Brother’s fans the exhibition promises even more reasons for admiration and those who are new to the Quays will receive a thorough introduction to the pair. Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets will be on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019 from August 12, 2012–January 7, 2013.

First Featured Image: The Quay Brothers on the set of Street of Crocodiles. 1986. Image courtesy of the filmmakers