A Scary Picture
The current state of affairs in the world, involving the destruction of the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan and the use of bio-agents as weapons, has incidentally made some art exhibits edgier and more difficult than had originally been intended by their organizers. Especially problematic are shows with disturbing images as their centerpieces or themes -- the kind of thing that is expected this time of year, since death and decay are associated with the fall in general and with Halloween in particular.
As it happens, curator Simon Zalkind has found himself at the helm of two such exhibits. At the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture -- where Zalkind serves as exhibition director -- the traveling Arnold Mesches is on display. The show is filled to the max with dark and foreboding paintings that seem to concern, at best, bad dreams, and at worst, nightmares. And at the Lakewood Cultural Center, Zalkind is guest curator for The Dream Mill, a group show made up of -- you guessed it -- dark and foreboding paintings based on bad dreams and nightmares.
"We opened the Mesches show on September 9, and it looked completely different then than it did a few days later, on September 11," says Zalkind, who is keenly aware of the awkward situation he has been thrust into.
Regardless, the paintings in the Mesches exhibit are both sharply relevant and spectacularly beautiful. Although they are often troubling, the mostly large works, many of them on unstretched canvas, are exquisitely done and brilliantly conceived -- something not unexpected from an artist with a professional career that spans more than fifty years.
Mesches was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx in 1923 and grew up in Buffalo. In 1942, after taking a course in advertising design, he entered the Art Center School of Los Angeles. Later in the 1940s, he became interested in art history and began painting.
In the 1950s, as the details of the Holocaust became known, Mesches began a lifelong effort to deal with it in artistic terms and to see it in the light of the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the United States, of which he is a member. Unlike many artists who have explored the Holocaust, Mesches doesn't so much illustrate the tragedy as simply suggest it through his palette and mood. And when he does use direct references to World War II, such as images of gas masks or soldiers, he reveals a certain and unexpected sangfroid in his approach to them.
The Mesches show was organized by Gerry Snyder and sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum in Portland. The paintings included were all created in the past several years.
The first piece that catches the eye -- or would that be demands attention? -- is "Coney," a gigantic 1997 acrylic on canvas that's been hung on the back wall facing the gallery's entrance. While "Coney" is dominated by deep tones of black and gray, Mesches uses lighter shades, including pink, orange, purple and white, to pick up the highlights of the various objects on the canvas. These objects conjure up the legendary amusement park Coney Island, which has been referred to as "the place of dreams." In the foreground are the horses of the Steeplechase ride; to the left are a rocket and a biplane; to the right are the parachute-jump ride and the neon sign that reads "Coney"; missiles fly in the sky above. The whole thing, though, is anchored by the mammoth figure of a green Cyclops who hovers over the park, holding grotesque severed heads in his hands; more severed heads float beneath his arms.
Without making any overt references to the Holocaust or WWII -- the piece is ostensibly about an amusement park -- Mesches makes us think of these events. The hideous Cyclops transforms the meaning of the amusement park so that the viewer realizes that the rides could also be the tools of war: horses, planes, parachutes, rockets, missiles.
The park is also referred to in "Coney Island," from 1999, another acrylic on canvas. This painting is light-filled and has been constructed in a style that mimics collage. Across the bottom, Mesches has lined up a series of images based on old photographs and illustrations. There's a corset shop, a posed snapshot and various other elements based on photographs, and a map of the Nazi Empire from around 1940. Filling the entire top of the composition is a daytime view of the grand entrance to Coney Island, with fireworks exploding above. To convey the fireworks, Mesches uses the kind of arrows that indicate troop movements. The arrows, of course, relate not just to the fireworks, but to the map.
Not everything here refers to WWII, but all of the paintings recall the early to mid-twentieth century. One of these more broadly nostalgic pieces is the spectacular "Read for Knowledge," an acrylic on canvas from 1996. It's a crowded composition that depicts one of those open-air magazine stands that are still a feature of New York. Like several others, it has a black ground on top of which lighter colors have been painted. Hanging with it are several studies for the individual magazines displayed on and around the stand. These small and marvelous studies reveal the way Mesches works. He uses numerous studies -- not just preliminary paintings like these, but photos and drawings, too, which are all brought together in preparation for the finished painting.
The Mesches show closes this Sunday, but there's a little more time left to see The Dream Mill, which comes down next weekend. Unfortunately, that show suffers from inadequate gallery space at the Lakewood Cultural Center. The LCC's visual-arts specialist, Elizabeth Morton, dealt with the problem by drafting the huge adjacent lobby and the generously proportioned mezzanine as additional spaces. This is a good solution, but it prevents the show from holding together because the works are so widely separated. It's too bad the only recently completed LCC didn't include a sufficiently large exhibition space to begin with.
Zalkind, who worked with Morton, began by issuing a call for entries, but virtually no one responded, so he recruited artists himself, many of them through their representative galleries.
Among the standouts are two haunting Iris prints by Philadelphia photographer Ruth Thorne-Thomsen that take up imaginary seascapes as their subject. They are the product of an elaborate process involving the construction of miniature sets, which are photographed, digitized and altered before being printed. These photo-based works are from the same series as those currently on display at Robischon, in which Thorne-Thomsen's work is covered in some depth.
The work of Colorado photographers is also seen in The Dream Mill, including an animated lenticular photo of swimmers by Linda Girvin and a self-portrait by Michael Ensminger titled "Frida's Dream," in which the photographer is dressed up as Frida Kahlo. The black-and-white nude silhouettes by Randy Brown are really choice.
Other things worth seeing are "The Waking Dream," a delicately detailed mixed-media collage by Michele Barnes; "Tattoo," a landscape painting by Jack Balas over which a paragraph of fiction floats; and two paintings by Peter Illig in which disparate representational images are improbably juxtaposed. A pair of multi-panel pieces by Jerry Kunkel do the same thing in a different way. The Kunkels feature enigmatic representational images lined up in horizontal rows of ten separate panels each. Creepy yet somehow lyrical are the two paintings -- one of a robot, the other of aliens from outer space -- by Paul Gillis. These subjects could have produced hokey results, but not the way Gillis handles them.
Really spectacular is a dusty-toned mural-sized painting called "Los Capuchinos," by Santiago Perez. Morton points out that painting inquisitors in conical hats and stylized masks, as he does in this case, is out of character for Perez.
In both of these shows, the artists are able to convey a sense of uneasiness and foreboding by using a variety of non-literal images. "Both shows capture the way artists deal with the non-rational and convey ideas in non-verbal ways," says Zalkind. "I believe artists can tap into non-rational ways of approaching things better than others can."
Speaking of the irrational, how about trying to mount a credible art show called 101 Vampires? Well, curator Kathryn Charles actually pulled it off. True, the show has no shortage of the kind of stuff that will appeal to every young woman in the city who wears black lipstick, but there's something in this goth presentation that's appealing to the rest of us as well.
Like Zalkind, Charles found herself in an awkward position, given the show's theme. "The day the World Trade Center came down, I thought, would anyone want to see a show about vampires? It seemed so irrelevant," she says. "But I had already done too much work on it. I had to go on, and I'm really glad I did."
When Charles says that she'd already done a lot of work on the show, she wasn't kidding. Not only did she put together an impressive group of sponsors and locate a wide variety of material from a vast array of collectors, dealers and artists, but she had to deal with the crisis of having been put out of the venue originally set for the show: the Emmanuel Gallery. Charles had been the interim director at Emmanuel and had been given the okay for the show earlier this year, only to be dismissed after she'd already issued a call for entries. Eventually she found a home for the exhibit, in the gallery space at the front of Pat Ryan's GOOG studio and workshop.
The show looks great, bringing together an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink assortment of material, including a nineteenth-century vampire-killer kit that contains a gun, a Bible, a crucifix and a wooden stake, as well as contemporary abstract paintings -- like the one by Jeffrey Keith -- which are only related to the rest of the show by their rich deep colors.
And let's not forget the attractions for that black-lipstick crowd -- notably, Jane Falkenberg's scrupulously done representational paintings of vampires and their fellow travelers, among other things of that ilk.
101 Vampires closes, appropriately enough, on Halloween.
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