Loose Leaves, High May­hem, 2811 Siler Lane, 501-3333; through Jan. 5, 2010

Pasatiempo - - Art And Photography -

A visit to an al­ter­na­tive art space can be fun, even if it’s only to see how a store­front, garage, stor­age unit, or a closet has been re­con­fig­ured into an exhibit space. Typ­i­cally, such places are lo­cated far from main­stream gal­leries. If the art­work is de­cent, that’s a bonus.

High May­hem, a multi-use, out-of-the-main­stream art space sit­u­ated far from the Plaza at 2811 Siler Lane — north of Big Jo True Value Hard­ware— has only been at its present lo­ca­tion since April 2009, but this is its ninth year in ex­is­tence; it orig­i­nally opened on Lena Street in 2000. Its for­mal rai­son d’être reads: “A not-for-profit emerg­ing arts fa­cil­ity, record la­bel, and mul­ti­me­dia pro­duc­tion col­lec­tive.” So at any one time, sched­uled events in­clude the vis­ual, lit­er­ary, and per­form­ing arts. Ex­cept for pub­lic re­cep­tions, how­ever, one does have to call for an ap­point­ment to get in.

Loose Leaves is the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion at High May­hem, which fea­tures 32 hand­made books by 19 artists. I use the term “books” loosely. While most of the artists have used or cre­ated ac­tual books in one way or an­other— flip-type, ac­cor­dion-style, and bound page turn­ers— a few pieces are quite novel in con­cept. The most makeshift have to be the aban­doned power boxes on a cou­ple of walls, which Alex Neville has en­vi­sioned as book forms; that is, rec­tan­gu­lar shapes with metal front cov­ers that open and close. If not for the exhibit la­bels, th­ese might go un­no­ticed as part of the show.

Work­ing in a more tra­di­tional man­ner, Neville has cre­ated two books, Fast and Young and To and From, each com­posed of six pages cut from Ma­sonite — imag­ine ceil­ing-fan blades spi­ral-bound by two loops of heavy-gauge wire. Both re­sem­ble those in­de­struc­tible books for tod­dlers. In fact, Fast and Young has a story line suited to those 2 and older. It is a night­time nar­ra­tive in which each hand-painted panel de­picts a dark sky and a full moon without text. To­ward the end, some tree limbs are in­cluded in the im­agery, and Neville adds a one-line clos­ing state­ment that could have just as well served as an in­tro­duc­tion: “A walk through Cap­i­tal Park with Lind­sey Miller.” To and From, on the other hand, con­tains pic­tures and text that get pro­gres­sively more es­o­teric, with an end­ing that is, by any stan­dard, bizarre. Add to that a writ­ten nar­ra­tive that in­cludes the line “patti hurst ran away again.” Is this an ac­quain­tance of the artist, or does Neville not know the sig­nif­i­cance of that name — or the cor­rect spell­ing of Patty Hearst? It’s con­fus­ing and a cu­ri­ous book over­all.

An­other cu­rios­ity in the show is Fa­mil­iar Mon­sters by Laura Shill. In 10 pages of photo-based, hand­ma­nip­u­lated vi­su­als, Shill has put to­gether her own lit­tle book of hor­rors. It’s akin to a med­i­cal text about peo­ple with phys­i­cal af­flic­tions. Each page has a sin­gle fig­ure on it posed mat­ter-of-factly, as if for record-keep­ing pur­poses. And Shill has done a nice job in hand­craft­ing each im­age within her bound text with in­ci­den­tal marks that add to its artis­tic qual­i­ties. But she lost her sense of di­rec­tion with the fur-lined cover, the front of which is re­plete with false teeth. Looking like the sev­ered head of some poor, in­no­cent sasquatch with an un­for­tu­nate un­der­bite, it de­flates the se­ri­ous­ness— and art­ful whimsy— of the pic­tures con­tained within. Without the teeth, Shill’s fur-cov­ered book might be tol­er­a­ble, but to­day any fur-bound read­ing ma­te­rial looks outdated and best left to the heady days of Sur­re­al­ism.

A work that stops just short of be­ing over­done is Pro­tec­tion Against the Pen, a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort be­tween Da­mon Grif­fith and Sabrina Grif­fith. In piec­ing to­gether more than a score of books by nuts and bolts and riv­ets and a strap or two, the artists have cre­ated a life-size war­rior in full ar­mor re­galia, with hel­met and bat­tle-ax. It may have a short shelf life in terms of artis­tic sig­nif­i­cance, but it’s one of the most fun con­cepts in the exhibit, and any book­store or pub­lic li­brary would be wise to snap it up for pub­lic­ity pur­poses.

With nods to René Magritte and as­sem­blage artist Joseph Cor­nell, Young Pla­gia­rist Press (aka Michael Lu­jan) has made a most in­trigu­ing book, ti­tled Ce n’est pas une guêpe lutte con­tre les four­mis (This is not a wasp fight­ing ants). Placed in a cut-out niche within an old edi­tion of Heath’s French Dic­tio­nary and seen un­der a cir­cu­lar, convex view­ing por­tal is, in­deed, a gi­gan­tic Ja­vanese blue-wing wasp in con­fronta­tion with two black Costa Ri­can bul­let ants sit­u­ated around a minia­ture tube of paint. Lu­jan’s ask­ing price for this mar­velous cre­ation is worth men­tion­ing: “$800 or an In­tel Mac Mini or a taxi­dermy dog.” Lay­away plan? Un­known.

In terms of con­cept and crafts­man­ship, An El­egy on the Death of a Dog by Amy West­phal is the show­stop­per in Loose Leaves. A hand-carved, pup­pet-like dog is seem­ingly sus­pended in midair be­tween a metal frame­work and an open book con­sist­ing of torn and tat­tered pages. But upon close in­spec­tion, the dog is hang­ing from strings like a mar­i­onette and en­tan­gled in as many strings se­cured to the book— an al­le­gory for any num­ber of life’s dilem­mas. The fragility ofWest­phal’s work also speaks to the del­i­cate na­ture of life in bal­ance, while the in­ci­den­tal shadow be­hind the piece adds an­other vis­ual di­men­sion to her en­gross­ing con­struct.

Loose Leaves is full of creative en­ergy, even if it’s not a full house of com­mend­able work. But therein lies the “al­ter­na­tive” in “al­ter­na­tive art space.” Amid the good, you have to step lightly over the bad.

— Dou­glas Fair­field

From left, Fa­mil­iar Mon­sters by Laura Shill, Pro­tec­tion Against the Pen by Da­mon Grif­fith and Sabrina Grif­fith, and An El­egy on the Death of a Dog by Amy West­phal

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