Master of Puppets Pulling the Strings at The Clemente

Posted on: September 21st, 2021 at 5:05 am by

Many of us grew up in Mr. Rogers’ Land of Make Believe, down at Fraggle Rock, and in the stage office of Kermit the Frog. From the comfort of our living rooms, we became privy to colorful, captivating worlds. Worlds that fashioned imaginative eagerness to see the inside of Oscar the Grouch’s trashcan, or the desire to take a trip into King Friday’s castle. It didn’t matter that the puppets didn’t move as humans. Their mouths only flapped up and down, or sometimes not at all, but that was okay. Because even from a young age, there was a subconscious understanding between the viewer and the creator that puppetry is not a sum of its parts, it’s the experience as a whole that makes the magic.

As an adult, there’s an added level of wonder, and a deeper appreciation for everything that goes into conjuring such magic during a performance. The difficulty of timing, the precision involved in animating a puppet to life, the artistic flair – these are feats that take years of practice and dedication to master in an effortless fashion.

This added appreciation is precisely what Leslee Asch has brought to light, with her latest exhibit, Puppets of New York: Downtown at the Clemente, now on view at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center.

“Puppetry is the perfect union of the theater and the visual arts,” Asch said in a recent sit-down interview. “Over the years, many important contemporary visual and theater artists have been drawn to the power of puppetry, and the artists highlighted in the exhibition continue to push the limits of this dynamic and varied art form, creating new possibilities for how New Yorkers encounter and experience puppet theater.”

Asch isn’t a stranger to puppetry. She was employed by Jim Henson as part of the New York Muppet Workshop in the late 1970s. She began her career as a puppet builder (she built Boober Fraggle), and went on to serve as Director of Exhibitions for Jim Henson Productions, curating and managing exhibitions worldwide. She also served as Executive Director of the Jim Henson Foundation and Producing Director of the Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater. She has been a long-time Trustee of the Jim Henson Foundation. This June, she published Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater, which provides a visual narrative of the festivals and their continued legacy, including a comprehensive look at the contemporary puppet theater landscape.

This particular exhibit, which arrives on the heels of Puppet Fringe NYC, is focused on a variety of stylistic mediums that speak to the breadth of what can be accomplished with puppeteering. It also spans the cultural stratosphere through an inclusivity in its storytelling techniques – there are Golems, Mayans, and even Peter Pan and Captain Hook. It’s also noteworthy that while there are puppetmasters included in the show, a few students who have apprenticed under them also have works on display – a unique continuity. These pieces are not within the confines of convention – they break the mould a bit, as to what bystanders might think puppetry is. But they are accessible, and more often than not, delightful and thought provoking.

The format is clever – on display are each of the puppets, set up in a manner that they would be for the scene in which they are in. At the end of the exhibit, Asch has put together a twenty minute video montage of each piece, performing in the scene that was depicted. This is a nice touch, as admiring the puppets is great, but seeing them in their full animating glory is even better.

We won’t reveal any more. Visitors can see the exhibition at The Clemente’s Abrazo Interno Gallery through September 30, 2021. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, 12pm-5pm.

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