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Puppetmaster

Mike Newton Dec 16

"Peter Schumann: The Shatterer"
Queens Museum
Through March 30, 2014


The first Bread & Puppet (B&P) production I ever saw was in the midst of New York City’s annual Halloween parade. I don’t remember what it was about, exactly, but it was both grandiose and humble, relating to the earth, the soil and the stages of life. At one point, I’m pretty sure two ghost-like puppets, with their dough-y papier-mâché heads and looming bed sheet bodies, had sex and made a little puppet baby. More than anything, I remember that the show was easily the biggest, most unified, most committed piece of work in the parade, and it felt strange (in a good way) that I hadn’t had to go and find this eerie, majestic piece of art — it had simply found me.

The simplest way to describe B&P is to say that they’re a politically minded puppet-theater company. But that definition leaves out so much: the public spectacles in small towns as well as big cities; the experience of marching in a peace protest and looking up toward a giant, sallow puppet face hovering over the procession on 20-foot stilts. B&P started in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1960s, but the troupe really took root on a patch of farmland in northern Vermont. That setting has allowed B&P to thrive — along with providing an expansive space for puppet production and rehearsal, the location has hosted the thousands of people who have come to B&P’s summertime spectacles over the years — and in 2013, the company celebrated its 50th year of seemingly ceaseless creativity.

In the 1990 pamphlet The Radicality of the Puppet Theater (viewable on the B&P website), the troupe’s founder and still-active overseer Peter Schumann wrote that puppetry is “an art which is easier researched in police records than in theater chronicles.” It’s true: B&P has remained largely outside the purview of the mainstream art world (this particular exhibit notwithstanding), but has influenced generations of activists, puppeteers and do-it-yourselfers. 

B&P is inseparable from the now 79-year-old Schumann, who has shaped the theater’s work for decades. Born in 1934 and raised in a small German village, Schumann made his way to New York in the early 1960s. By the time he turned 30, he had been up-close with the Third Reich, the Second World War, rural poverty and various strains of American counterculture. Schumann's singularly intense vision is maybe something of a paradox for the troupe: B&P seems to borrow a communal, collective approach from the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ’70s, but much of its effort goes in support of just one man’s art. Then again, without that particular persona at its core, B&P would be, and likely will be, something very different. 

“The Shatterer,” Schumann's current solo exhibition at the Queens Museum, takes its name from A-bomb architect J. Robert Oppenheimer's conflicted, post-Hiroshima quoting of the Bhagavad Gita, a line translated as “Now, I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.” 

The exhibition imagines 15th- and 16th-century peasant uprisings, as glimpsed between layers of post-Occupy street theater, wartime atrocities, prehistoric art and Boschian infernos. Wizened faces droop to the floor while cardboard discs explode from the ceiling; calm, ashen death masks float over tiny, huddled, fleshy families, alongside what appear to be globby papier-mâché casts of the newborn Christ. Built mainly out of paper and house paint, the exhibition includes newly created pieces as well as repurposed bits from old B&P productions, some of them dating almost to the troupe’s birth five decades ago. It speaks to Schumann's devotion that all these disparate items could be made to cohere as a single artwork. 

Going back to their early shows about affordable housing and the Vietnam War, B&P has long since engaged with the politics of the moment. With textual references to “the 99%,” cardboard cutouts of businessmen and wall drawings of fighter jets, “The Shatterer” makes a few nods towards the present, but it’s not really about that. Rather than any sort of in-the-moment timeliness, perhaps the most radical, far-reaching aspect of Schumann’s work is the undergirding ethos: using rough-and-ready methods to explore the role of the individual caught in the struggle between war and peace, feast and famine, life and death. B&P productions are memorable not just because of their homespun constructs, but also because of their lumbering, ungainly grandeur; it’s not just thanks to their liveliness, but also their writhing, haunted sense of morbidity. 

As for the “bread” part of Bread & Puppet: they’re serious about that. Troupe members regularly pass out free, homemade bread at their shows, and Schumann will be giving out bread several times at the Queens Museum. In the 1987 pamphlet What Is Cheap Art?, Schumann wrote that “art must be accessible like bread.” Likening white bread to the “dessert-like stuff which fattened Louis XVI,” Schumann posits that “the elitist art consumer must be provoked,” just as “the fluffy white-bread-eaters” must be “challenged with rough old sourdough rye.” B&P is famous for its maxim “Art is cheap!” but projects like “The Shatterer” get lodged in the brain not just because they’re cheap, but because they’re beautiful. Schumann’s is a coarse, blistered sort of populism: his art is accessible, but that doesn’t make it easy.


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