For her first solo show, at New York’s Winkleman Gallery last winter, Leslie Thornton unveiled a series of riveting flat-screen diptychs called “Binocular.” On the left of each, a circular projection showed a live animal—a python, an orangutan, a blue bird, a swarm of ants. On the right, the same animal appeared digitally refracted, as if filtered through a kaleidoscope, undulating in mesmerizing synchronicity with the beast’s motions.
A newcomer to the gallery world, 60-year-old Thornton, whose works sell for $6,000 to $125,000 at Winkleman, is best known as a pioneering experimental filmmaker. Thornton first encountered avant-garde films as a teenager in Schenectady, New York, through weekly screenings at the local Unitarian church. She went on to study painting at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where she also came under the influence of a few key experimental filmmakers, notably Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton. Her earliest efforts in film, as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, caused such a stir that she was asked to leave the school. The work was considered too polished and overly edited—it strayed from the cinema-vérité style preferred by her professors. “They didn’t like that at all,” she says.
In San Francisco in the 1980s, Thornton launched her first mature films: a series of ongoing shorts titled “Peggy and Fred in Hell,” which follows two children as they wander through a postapocalyptic landscape, mimicking the behaviors they encounter on television sets. Like a later series called “Let Me Count the Ways 10…9…8…7…6” (2004–), “Peggy and Fred” references the aftereffects of the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Significantly, Thornton’s father and grandfather both worked on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb.
But Thornton’s filmmaking has never been limited to a fascination with her own era. Adynata (1983) centered on a found portrait of a Chinese family taken in 1861, and two projects sprang from documentation of a spirited 19th-century traveler and writer named Isabelle Eberhardt—There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving (1988) and the series-in-progress “The Great Invisible” (1990–). These films artfully toy with notions of biography, identity, history, and linear storytelling.
The “Binocular” series had its genesis at natural-history museums. “I would go into these museums and look like I was making stills,” says Thornton. “But I was not happy with what I was making, so I started shooting a couple of live animals, beginning with the black parrot” at the Bronx Zoo. She then traveled to a zebra farm north of Los Angeles and a private reptile collection on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
The link with her earliest works lies in a schism of ways and means. “Adynata is a fake portrayal of Imperial China. ‘The Great Invisible’ is a fractured, self-annihilating attack on biography as a form, and the ‘Binocular’ series literally splits one image in two,” she says. “Basically I’m still a formalist, a structuralist at heart. I just ask the viewer to accept a very broad palette of behavior, images, and sounds in a conscious and reflexive way.”