Carl Knickerbocker's 'suburban primitive' films are a poetic protest against unchecked development

From the 'SP' film series
From the 'SP' film series Carl Knickerbocker

Carl Knickerbocker is an Oviedo-based filmmaker and painter who has claimed for himself the sobriquet "surburban primitivist." His exploration in this self-defined genre concentrates on the tension between urban affluence and the perils of modern consumerism that he surveys from his Oviedo redoubt. Knickerbocker has lived for many years on a sprawling family property overgrown with orange trees – it is his studio, computer lab, storage, workshop and living quarters. This is an artist's hideout, filled with large canvases, cutouts from foamcore and paper, and found objects. He is a gentle-hearted man, deeply engaged in his art-making, and he rejects the normative Florida lifestyle, navigating his own path through look-alike neighborhoods and their indifferent populations.

Fascinated by a review of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Knickerbocker started drawing in 1984, later producing large-scale paintings. Since 2009, Knickerbocker has been producing short films (up to four minutes long) with haunting soundtracks by Orlando-based David Schweizer, all titled SP (Suburban Primitive). Knickerbocker says, "The music part of this work I've been doing is quite the challenge. It's difficult to articulate the degree of frustration and ecstasy dealing with the music." In his latest film, SP5, an organ-like sound underpins the story of a marriage based on mercantile reasons. The romance starts with a woman's attraction to a man's watch, and ends in the suburban ideal: two cars and a bottle of Coke next to the TV.

Knickerbocker's films are populated with a recurring cast of characters that includes little human figures resembling pictographs and creatures with human heads and dog's bodies. These homunculi move through a foggy space, a murky forest that contrasts the natural world against a world of identical houses and cars. The SP shorts have an unfinished appearance and no narrative. The figures move slowly in and out of the frame. Puppet strings are in full view, communicating the very DIY nature of a Knickerbocker production.

But, despite their casual nature, his SPs are self-reflective and philosophical, and difficult to dismiss. Long after I left his studio the images replayed in my head. Knickerbocker seems to have imbibed the brooding nature of his family property. He laments the disappearance of the Southern generosity he grew up with, the loss of which he blames on uncontrolled development and greedy developers. The artist says of his filmmaking: "I'm older now, contemplating mortality, and wondering how one derives meaning within this culture [and]world."

Ibex Puppetry's Heather Henson, who also serves on the board of her father's grant-making institution, the Jim Henson Foundation, took an interest in Carl's work as a painter and encouraged him to learn animation. He began taking courses in Final Cut Pro, where he discovered 3-D animation. Knickerbocker quickly found his calling, and success, in the Central Florida indie film-festival community. Our local cinemathèque, the Enzian Theater, is a major supporter of Knickerbocker's film work. Tim Anderson, programmer and host of the Enzian FilmSlam series, says, "My decision to program Carl's work is based entirely on reminding audiences that narrative cinema is not the end-all-be-all, that there is a beauty and depth in the avant-garde." Anderson places Knickerbocker in the lineage of experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas. Knickerbocker pursues his own version of their urban existentialism from his outpost in suburbia.

"His style is laser-focused and very clearly his own," Anderson adds. This is no surprise: Knickerbocker does not have the formal fine art training that would have given him an art history-approved tool kit. Knickerbocker's art follows in the tradition of the many self-trained artists who arrived in Florida in the early 1900s. They were attracted by its fragile natural environment of wetlands and beaches and the frontier qualities that welcomed an influx of energetic eccentrics who could add their culture to the variety of already existing folk and indigenous cultures.

Knickerbocker's internationally screened film The Last Orange Grove of Middle Florida is his most accessible, according to Anderson. The film traces Florida's abandonment of agriculture for a tourist-based economy. In this short, a group of grotesque Disney characters painted in garish colors swirl in a spooky dance under the falling orange trees. It shares the pervasive atmosphere of disdain and melancholy that permeates all the SPs. The artist seems to echo the protagonist of Elmore Leonard's 1984 Miami-set novel LaBrava, who says, "They made Florida into what it is today: Newark with palm trees."

Howard Marks, an Orlando real estate lawyer and a major collector of outsider and self-taught artwork, has many of Knickerbocker's paintings in his office. He told me that when developers come to his office, their discomfort with Knickerbocker's anti-development vision is palpable. They understand the artist's rejection of suburban expansion and know that they are the target of his parodies. The utopian vision Knickerbocker pursues threatens them, but it's a major gift to us.

Face to Face: Artists Florida is a semi-regular series profiling the artists who weave the cultural tapestry of Central Florida.

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