Rainbow Logic Celebrates Remy Charlip

by Jean Schiffman

The late, beloved local artist Remy Charlip will not be forgotten—that is, not if Eye Zen founder/artistic director Seth Eisen can help it.

Seth Eisen is making it his mission to ensure that multidisciplinary artist Remy Charlip gets his due in the annals of history.

Charlip, who died at 83 in 2012, was a dancer, choreographer, visual artist and writer whose 38 illustrated children's books (for which the Library of Congress named him a "national treasure"), letters from famous friends like Lou Harrison, "air mail dances" (simple drawings of figures in motion that he sketched as prompts, or guides, for choreographers), journals, contracts, stage costumes, photos and more bear testament to an extraordinary life. Charlip was a founding member of Merce Cunningham's dance company; he created the Paper Bag Players, a children's company; he designed dance costumes.

But his archives-catalogued in a 1,000-page document and stored in more than 100 boxes in Emeryville-have yet to be collected in their entirety by an important cultural institution.

Eisen aims to change that. To that end, he has created "Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip," a multidisciplinary piece inspired by Charlip's aesthetics and sensibility. Co-presented by the Contemporary Jewish Museum and co-commissioned by CounterPulse, "Rainbow Logic" uses puppetry, dance (choreography by James Graham), text, music (composer, Miguel Frasconi), video (designed by Ian Winters), layered projections, circus skills, voice-overs, live drawing and other theatrical elements-including Charlip's own sketches and family photos-to trace the narrative of a unique and independent life.

Eisen was 21 when he met Charlip, who'd grown up in Brooklyn and relocated to the Bay Area in 1989. The two bonded: both had visual arts backgrounds, were gay, were Jewish. The friendship grew. When a 2005 stroke left Charlip with aphasia-"a poet who'd lost his ability to speak clearly," says Eisen-he was moved to the Rhoda Goldman Plaza. Eisen took on the task of organizing his archives.

"Rainbow Logic" is the fourth in an Eye Zen series that the decade-old company has produced to "unearth and elevate histories of LGBTQ ancestors." Charlip was an obvious choice. "Remy has so much to offer in his books and his teachings that I wanted to share," Eisen explains. "This is a tribute to him but it doesn't shy away from the challenges … dealing with homophobia, supporting himself as an artist in challenging times." It also doesn't shy away from exploring Charlip's childhood with an unloving father.

Eisen recorded about 30 interviews with Charlip's friends, colleagues, family members and lovers here and in New York and delved into archives held by Charlip's executors. From his research, he crafted a piece that uses two men-Paul Loper, a puppeteer/actor who plays Remy in old age, and circus artist/actor Colin Creveling, who plays the youthful Remy. A two-foot-tall bunraku-style puppet, designed by Eisen with Diego Gomez, Terrance Graven and Rich Hutchison using Charlip's own simple craftsman's tools, represents Remy in the intervening years. Charlip loved puppets and in some of his books provided instructions for turning stories into shadow puppet plays. Lead puppeteer Emily Butterfly plays various roles, including Remy's mother.

There's also a "toy theater" the size of a big box with a camera inside; computerized images are mixed with other images and are projected onto an upstage screen that represents a giant, open book. The effect, seen in an early rehearsal, is charmingly low-tech, like a storybook perceived through the eyes of a child.

During his research, Eisen found a journal in which Charlip had drawn his young, old and middle-aged selves, and written about those three selves uniting. That, for Eisen, became a metaphor for the piece: the reconciliation of the three ages of Remy, loving and comforting one another at various stages of growth. A rapturous duet between the older and the younger Remy is particularly poignant. "When you're older and able to see how the different sides of yourself can interact, perhaps you can come to peace about your life," theorizes Eisen.

"Remy was very meticulous about how he saw the world," he adds. "He was interested in the kind of illusion that happens in life. He was interested in transformation, so we tried to incorporate some of that into the visual elements." Eisen saw the way Charlip had organized his possessions: a sense of order, "a sort of natural unfolding." Colors, sizes and shapes had a logic of their own, a way of falling into place, just as Charlip's many artistic disciplines had a way of coming together ("his own personal rainbow," says Eisen-hence the title "Rainbow Logic").

"Watching his decline was one level of discovery for me and our community," recalls Eisen. "The whole ritual around his death, people gathering, was quite magical and of course really sad. This idea of how our legacy actually goes on, who carries it forward-that's the crux of my own work. As gay people, but really, as anyone: How is our legacy carried forward? What happens to us as artists when we leave our body? What we leave behind-how is that cared for?

"My hope is that interest in Remy Charlip will be reignited-who he was, and the wisdom he left behind."

Rainbow Logic:
Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip

Eye Zen

Nov. 4 → 20


80 Turk St., San Francisco