Saturday, July 3, 2010

Close Encounters

Close Encounters

By Tom Wachunas

“Any great work of art…revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world – the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”
- Leonard Bernstein -

With apologies to Olivia Newton John, let’s get metaphysical. All art – the making, presenting, and witnessing of it – is a lover’s pursuit of the beloved, and consummated in mutually fulfilled desire.

So, desire for what? Think of the beloved as a living essence, an ineffable presence, the spirit of an idea that desires to be embraced, savored, given form. A story longing to be told. In turn, think of the lover as a storyteller. All artists are, to one degree or another, storytellers. Their tales may be clearly autobiographical yet at the same time clothed with mystery and metaphor.

Further, in as much as artists invite us to witness their stories – their consummated desires - the invitation presupposes that we, too, are lovers of a sort, desiring to embrace and be embraced by the stories we encounter. Our desire, then, is to give those stories form and meaning - to in essence retell them - in our own minds. A symbiotic relationship of the most elegant kind.

And so it is that Joseph Carl Close has gone to great and admirable lengths to bring us a story in his show, “Prologue: Origins of a Tale,” currently on view at Anderson Creative in downtown Canton. Prior to this exhibit, Close’s work has been highly visible in our community, over the past several years, as individual works placed in a variety of contexts and venues. As such, they have often posed a challenge – albeit a thrilling one – in discerning exactly what they’re about. Here is, for the first time in Canton to my knowledge, a concerted effort to present them as a cohesive, interpretable ouvre. Not that the individual works aren’t somehow compelling in their own right. They certainly are. But now, Close’s esthetic takes on a whole new, collectively resonant and gripping logic.

What’s the story? Generally, as he offers in his posted statement, it’s “Welcome to my mind in three dimensions.” Specifically, his mind has been, for the past few years, processing the known histories of three distinctly separate “entities,” and recasting them into an epic-scale, personalized fiction. The reformulated entities are: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, artist and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Punchinello (of Punch and Judy), the clown character originally from 17th century Italian theatre; and Snow Flake, an albino gorilla. The gallery is organized into three “rooms” – areas, really – each with art works inspired by one of the characters. Additionally, a fourth area is literally the transplanted room where Close lives and makes art - the birth place of this intriguing saga. So the show is actually a reinvented history wherein the characters live, love, and otherwise embark upon adventures both strange and harrowing.

But the art we see goes much deeper than illustrative renderings (which are executed with masterful and breathtaking elegance) of fantasy situations, or painterly snapshots of a fairy tale. Close doesn’t make these characters “live on” in his art so much as he lets his art be a vehicle for melding his persona with theirs - a platform for exploring and expanding upon the aspects of the characters that he finds both relevant and emotionally compelling, as well as mystifying. Even Snow Flake gets to show his art. And after talking with Close, I agree that the dynamic at work here is a complete immersion in the story’s characters – a visual and very tactile “method acting.”

And here’s where, on at least one level, Bernstein’s “strange, special air” comes in to play. The gallery has the slightly musty aroma of oil paint and rust, mingled with old attic wood (though, granted, some of that may be lingering and natural to the space). Close makes art largely from found objects including antique furniture (pieces of which often used as frames for his paintings), metal scraps and hardware, and glass. All of it contributes to a sense of arrested decay and rustic industrialism. Even his paintings seem to be exhaled from the stressed wood, rather than just decoratively sit atop the surface. Close’s palette is dominated by earth tones blended with dusky blues and smoky grays. So there is, to be sure, an unmistakable aura of melancholy that pervades the show, though one that’s far more genuinely tender than morbid.

Above a closed door in Close’s room is the text, “Beyond the door is the next adventure, more dark trials and a chance for redemption.” The appeal of - indeed the desire for - a well-told story is timeless and universal. It’s our stories that reveal our dreams and loves, and our struggles to exorcise our demons. Our victories and vulnerabilities. If what lies behind the Closed door is anything like the Prologue, I imagine it to be a bestseller.

Photo: Joseph Carl Close’s transplanted room. Part of his exhibit, “Prologue: Origins of a Tale,” currently at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton, through July 31. Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, noon to 5p.m.

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