T. Jefferson Carey -- playwright, actor, artist, set designer, landscape laborer -- might be the most unassuming Renaissance man you'll ever meet. But really, he's just a regular guy with a good shtick. More to the point, he's a grown-up boy with a whole lifetime of surreal and scary dreams to sort out -- something he's been doing for thirty years, frame by frame, vision by vision. His oeuvre includes a weird and expansive collection of drawings, a ten-year stint designing haunted-house attractions and Internet flash films in Chicago, and the well-received play Pan & Boone, in which two little boys are carried off on a bunk bed into an underworld of bedtime stories gone awry.
Now Carey is offering Halloween-season gallery-goers a glimpse into his somewhat private world with a retrospective art exhibit, Scary Carey, on the sixth floor of the slightly spooky D&F Tower, in a vacant gallery space renamed the Phantom Gallery especially for this event. Featuring more than 300 "objets macabre," the show, both disturbing and comic (the artist describes his work as "a cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Mad magazine"), continues through Halloween eve.
Born and raised in the Denver area, Carey says he's been fascinated by the macabre since he was a kid. He designed his first public haunted house -- in his family home -- when he was still in high school. "Everything went fine," he recalls. "Even the 1,000-foot drop." He earned his BFA in playwriting from NYU, and back home in Denver, interned at the Denver Center Theatre Company and studied at the National Theatre Conservatory. Carey ended up in Chicago, where he met and began working for haunted-house entrepreneur Joe Jensen, a visionary whose revered Hades Haunted House was credited with being one of the first spook houses to feature real actors in creepy roles rather than the usual kids with their faces painted white.
"I had complete free rein within the Halloween milieu," Carey says of his stint there. During that time, he created one of the exhibit's most stunning series: Slides of My Trip to Hell, based on Dante's Inferno. A long sequence of complex drawings depicting such scenes as "The Leopard of Malice and Vice" and "Virgil on a Meat Hook" and rendered in pen-and-ink and wash, Carey actually presented them in one room of the Hades house as, yes, a slide show. His peculiar little Inferno-world exposes his own enchantment with Dante's allegory. "Dante said, ŒOh, I'm banished. Well then, I'm going to create Hell.' I appreciate that kind of hubris," the artist notes. It's not surprising that Carey also appreciates William Styron's take on Dante in the memoir Darkness Visible, in which Styron compared going down into the inferno to a bout of depression.
You won't go through Scary Carey thinking you're scoping out the next da Vinci. But at the very least, it's a step above comic art, and at most, it's a rough sketch of the untrained but talented artist who created it. It's reminiscent of the work of Edward Gorey, Shel Silverstein, Wally Wood and Big Daddy Roth. It's literary and it's silly, telling one unique story after another -- from the tale of "The Lonely Stone," an unwitting tombstone that doesn't know why it's been chiseled up, then eventually takes a mate and has a child, to the serial Internet cliffhanger "Reynard Blanc," about a boy whose family is taken by goblins, and in the aftermath, he must continually save his little sister from the jaws of baby-eaters and the like.
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Okay. It's creepy. It's also Halloween. Let T. Jefferson Carey take you to meet Satan, frozen in ice at the bottom of the earth. "When he was kicked out of heaven," he'll explain, "this is where he landed." You'll get the feeling Carey's been there, too.