by Susan W. Pidgeon
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That is, I suppose, due to the narrative aspect. A good work of art keeps the mind jumping around, asking questions and searching for clues to find the statement or story that is being portrayed by the artist. One of my art teachers said to act as though you are making an entire movie in just one image whenever you take a photograph.
That is what makes the narrative aspect so appealing whenever you have artwork of any kind. There is a hidden message from the artist to the viewer, not only a tactile element in the beautiful application of the paint, but in the mental element if there is a narrative aspect hidden within the image. The viewer stands searching for clues, trying to understand what statement the artist is making to them as a bonus. It’s like those secret decoder rings in the boxes of cereal back in the day.
Recently, I went downtown to check out the work at the City Gallery and attended the opening for a show called Slightly Askew featuring artists Rebecca Davenport and Cabell Heyward. It did not disappoint.
See the gallery here.
Rebecca Davenport’s assemblage pieces
The work of Rebecca Davenport is cohesive in that it is all assemblage, and has a carny theme. There are all kinds of wonderful narrative pieces that delight the mental and visual senses. The only thing she needed was some olfactory feature to make it a full experience. I can imagine the work in a circus tent with spot lighting from above, hanging on the red curtained surface with the faint smell of nuts and popcorn, cotton candy and elephant dung all around. Now that would be something!
As it were, the walls of the City Gallery were enough to suffice. True to assemblage, which is in short the 3D cousin of collage, the pieces come off the canvas. There are lots of plastic appendages glued on and objects in front of paintings and hanging from the edges, placed a foot from the wall so that the viewer can stand behind things and become part of the art. One painting even had a stepstool at the base of it. A friend offered to take my photo and I climbed behind the painting so that visually I had become the great beaked caged canary. It doesn’t get more carny than getting in the act! I instantly had the canary beak and the body of a gorilla. WOW!
A artistic comment on body image
Over to the left edge of the gallery were several pieces any aging woman can relate to, with lots of Barbie dolls and references to the fact that women are judged based on looks and sex appeal primarily in society. One was called Motel Mattel in reference to the ideal female proportions that Barbie is known to purportedly hold.
There was another piece about preservatives that brought to mind the phrase “she is certainly well preserved” which used to be said about a woman who had kept her looks up as she aged. There were other references of the emphasis on females as pretty objects to be admired and later conquered sexually.
The societal disdain of the overweight 643 pound Sweet Marie turned carnival attraction was shown in the term ” sweet” rather than “beautiful” or “sexy” or other terms applied to desirable females. Another overweight woman was called “Really Jolly Jill” alluding to the fact that overweight people are supposed to be fat and happy. All people who have struggled with weight can relate to these feelings of being seemingly valued solely for physical attributes.
Watch out for the vacuum cleaner!
There were other funny pieces such as one where a struggle with a vacuum cleaner turned snake was supplemented by the phrase ” why me?” Anybody who has had to deal with housework can relate.
In addition to those paintings were excellent renditions of carnival items. One had a deliciously spooky clown head. Lots of pig imagery were found in the pieces, which I believe is a reference again to body image issues carved in the mind of humans by a shallow society.
Davenport’s artist statement reads that she wants to “take you on a journey, so that you will, looking at my images, be altered and transported in some unique way, an escape from everyday as we take a trip outside the common place”. She does that indeed, via the carnival theme which has all kinds of connotations of alienation and rejection attached to it.
A change of gears with Cabell Heyward
Upstairs was the work of Cabell Heyward. His work was very different from the work of Davenport, which was edgy and raw. In fact I turned to my friend and said, “I don’t know how these two came together in a show”. I later looked up Heyward’s work, and he has some exceptional assemblages as well. That might be what initially drew the two artists together.
Heyward’s paintings were a change of gears in that they appeared to be clean and crisp, elegant, and very traditional. Like the work of the 18th century portrait painters with dark highly glossed glorious surfaces on the canvas, they truly were luscious and indicative of why people love oil paintings.
There were however no grand portraits with the exception of one painting called “Her Majesty Queen Isabel Taking a Break During a Velasquez Painting“. At first I didn’t like the formality of it but then after a little bit I re-approached the painting and I laughed at the fact that the dog was standing over an aquarium full of what could have easily been the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Then I loved it and found it to be quite clever.
Finding the hidden message
The other paintings all held narrative elements and had hidden pockets of delight if you stood there long enough to try to examine them for various repeated icons. To me they seemed to exhibit a struggle between antiquated items of life during the 50s and current technology. For instance, an old metal teapot held antennae and was connected to a tablet. There were other bygone items such as old metal tables and tiny box ovens.
My favorite painting next to the one with an elephant (shown in the City Paper) was the one of the cigarettes and the wire which brought to mind the old timey science experiments between batteries using clamps. His most successful work to me was the more bizarre where the artist seemed to loosen up and not be made to behave, like the teakettles and fish which seemed indicative of the stiff origins of still life.
“Conscious intention is toxic to art”
Lastly, I loved that in his artist statement, after talking about approaching the art making process as an empty vessel with no preconceived notions, he wrote, “Conscious intention is toxic to art. Art arrives unbidden in a state of distracted listening, where affinities coalesce around the natural magnetism between forms and colors. It is the result of subordinating oneself to the flow of a superior yet unknown purpose.” Heyward then declared in closing: “Art is therefore made as much by the viewer as by the artist. Your interpretation is as valid as mine.”
I found this approach refreshing in that often people look to the artist as the source of knowledge when in actuality they are as clueless as to the meaning as everyone else but instead consider the work a result of a specific day and time spent pouring forth their innards like water from a pitcher to a glass.
All in all, the show Slightly Askew is not askew at all but right on target and as Sonny Goldberg used to say “well worth the trip downtown”. It can be seen at The City Gallery until May 7th.
See the gallery here.
Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)202-5394 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find her at www.thestudioartcenter.com or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.