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