Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Novel Approach

A Novel Approach

    “To come to the end of a time of anxiety and fear! To feel the cloud that hung over us lift and disperse—the cloud that dulled the heart and made happiness no more than a memory! This at least is one joy that must have been known by almost every living creature.”

Richard Adams, from Watership Down

   “…I like to think that, along with my synopses of the story, this collaboration is not unlike a bunch of rabbits using their skills to find a new home.”  -Craig Joseph, from his curator statement

    EXHIBIT: Watership Down – new work by Joseph Close, and themed jewelry by Jess Kinsinger of Sassyfrass, at Cyrus Custom Framing, 2645 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 1, 2015   (330)452-9787

    I really can’t recall a local gallery exhibit that has engaged me more, on multiple levels, than this one. In that respect I’ve seen comparable shows and most of those, interestingly enough, were at Translations Gallery, formerly located on Cleveland Avenue in the arts district. So it’s not surprising to see the continued curatorial role of Translations director Craig Joseph in this collection of new pieces (2D and 3D) by Joseph Close.
    This time around, Close presents some 50 works (and an additional 17 preparatory drawings) inspired by English author Richard Adams’ 1972 novel, Watership Down. It’s the allegorical tale of a group of rabbits fleeing the imminent destruction of their warren and their tempestuous adventures in establishing a new home. Their world has an elaborate culture, language and mythology all its own, and the book often brings to mind the epic quest themes we encounter in the classical writings of Homer and Virgil.
    The act of “illustrating” a written story can be a daunting and certainly subjective business, calling for an artist to generate imagery that hopefully harmonizes with the narrative zeitgeist. The challenge is in how best to  “bring the words to life” - to support and, ideally, enhance their credibility. Curiously enough, one example of an unsatisfying outcome is the 1978 animated film version of Watership Down, written and directed by Martin Rose, and wisely provided for viewing in this exhibit. You’ll notice that the renderings of the rabbit characters have all the cartoony punch of vintage movies like Bambi, which I find to be strangely disconnected from the edgy nature of this particular story. That said, it’s worth noting that that nature is effectively present in the stylized moodiness of the film’s static background shapes and colors.
    Mr. Close’s 2D interpretations might have taken a few cues from those backgrounds in terms of his extensive employment of brooding analogous colors, as if misted twilight or darker night has befallen most of the scenes he depicts. I can understand how some viewers, initially unfamiliar with the story while imagining fluffy rabbits romping through lush green meadows and sun-dappled woodlands, might find his treatments a bit on the dark side.
   Yet for all of that, Close’s fluid and expressive drawing style (bolstered by a dazzling variety of mark-making techniques), his observational acumen, and his eye for activating a picture plane with well-placed accents of light and texture, all combine to imbue these visions with dramatic depth. Eschewing the formulaic, Disneyesque pleasantries of anthropomorphized animals, Close’s creatures are efficacious renderings of palpable vivacity and real volatility, whether as pictures or sculptures, as in “Attempted Truce.” It’s an imposing, even startling totem, comprised of found objects and materials (including an ornate head covering that suggests a kind of armor), representing a rabbit fiercely standing his ground.
    Two other elements of this exhibit contribute significantly to appreciating its collaborative aspects. Curator Craig Joseph has written a sequenced synopsis, his astute texts mounted on numbered (1 through 49) placards that accompany each piece. Viewers who haven’t read the book can easily grasp the gist of the story. And then there’s the matter of overall presentation. The framed works under glass take on a spectacular, elegant dimensionality thanks to the brilliant design sensibilities of Cyrus Framing owner Christian Harwell. His unusually contoured (“carved,” in a way) matting treatments give the pieces a sculpted feel, angling the pictures within their frames to heighten their sense of energy and motion. Clearly an art in itself. 
    Watership Down has an uplifting finale. The last two works in the sequence leave us on an optimistic note of both tenderness and apotheosis. One is a soft portrait of the farm girl, Lucy, cradling the heroic Hazel after saving him from being killed by a cat. The end piece, “The Black Rabbit Comes for Hazel,” is a free-standing, wide arch of curved metal pieces – thin and sleek despite their rusty patina, as if soaring through the air. It’s a wonderfully distilled abstraction symbolizing Hazel leaving his tired body to be welcomed into the spirit realm.
    Of all the shows by Joseph Close that I’ve seen through the years, this one is quite simply the most compelling to date. And you don’t need to have first read the novel that prompted his marvelous interpretations to savor the sheer thrill of looking at them.

    PHOTOS (from top) courtesy Craig Joseph: Fiver’s Vision at the Sign Post (#1 in the synopsis); Holly Arrives in the Night (#2); Bigwig Reports to Kehaar (#34); El-Ahrairah and Rowsby Woof (#40); Attempted Truce (#42)   

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