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Beauties and Beasts

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So you thought you knew Little Red Riding Hood? So did I, at least until I started thinking about it. Then I realized that all the old fairy tales had blended in my mind over time into a gumbo of little girls, wolves, princesses, frogs and dwarves, trailing off into a weird frontier populated by Frankenstein, Godzilla, Dracula, Dick Nixon and SpongeBob. Little Red Riding Hood is the star of Stephen Paul Day's Innocent Act, but you won't come away with any clearer idea of what the original story was all about. Like myths, fairy tales are dreamlike, more psychological than coherent, and make little rational sense.

In his art, Day mines them for their symbolism, for themes such as truth and deception, beauty and beastliness, innocence and its loss. In verbal accounts such issues are determined by the story line, but as a visual artist Day focuses instead on the iconic outer trappings in works such as Mermaids, where a pair of bronze girls' heads appears enmeshed in tendrils of seaweed. Their expressions are eager, expectant, as one seems to whisper in the other's ear. Actually, it's not quite clear; she might be kissing or nibbling the other's ear lobe. As with most fairy tales, ambiguity rules, and innuendo and duality abound. Day makes much of this in The Beauty of a Split Apple, in which another pair of little girls' heads, this time in glass, is pressed together in contemplation of a halved apple.

The Meeting is a painting of two nearly identical Little Red Riding Hoods gazing into each other's eyes. Maybe it's a compositional quirk, but one seems poised to slip her hand into the other's purse. Does Little Red have an evil twin? In another, a sculptural diptych, two bathing beauties appear in bell jars. One is cast bronze with an axe resting awkwardly between her knees and arms; the other, cast crystal, has an oversized apple at her side. What's clear is that only a guy could have done this. All else is open to interpretation.

Biblical Branch, a bronze tree limb with little human figures, suggests a kind of human family tree, but up close the figures look like killer apes, evoking Darwin instead. It appears the path to truth and beauty is a winding road, indeed. But beauty is not always linked with truth; it is often about allure, which may be the real theme here. History of Beauty features a pair of demure cast-crystal maidens, heads together, eyes cast down. As Francis Bacon noted, beauty often has an element of strangeness about it, and this show has no shortage of either, as it utilizes fairy tale figures to explore beauty and allure, beastliness and transgression, and the oddly ambiguous zone that divides, and defines, them.

No such ambiguity appears in Michael Willmon's Ghostly New Orleans paintings, straight up tableaux of spooks at play. In Blue Moon-Belle Grove, it appears that he's expanded his venues to include plantations where discarnate ladies and gentlemen in period attire comport themselves with a dignity befitting a more courtly age. Bawdier and more bodacious is Ghost of Marie Laveau, where sometimes nude female spooks dance with snakes amid candles and drums. While such scenes are nothing new, Willmon these days is putting more flesh on dem bones, exercising his painterly skills and giving his ghostly burlesques a bit more panache. Hey, even ghouls like to keep up appearances. An array of small works by Mary Jane Parker transforms the back gallery into an oversized curiosity cabinet with clusters of natural and hand-crafted oddities, neatly arranged according to size and shape. While too diverse to go into much detail here, some of the more poetic pieces include Thorns, a pair of sculpted hands encircled by barbed vines like a crown of thorns, simple elements that appear almost Biblical because of their cultural associations. Her Dreaming series features vintage photos of female eyes and lips, unobstructed or pressed closed by fingers, all behind lenses on spindly stands like stationary monocles. It's those censoring fingers that provide their surreal appeal through sight and speech -- implied, and denied -- in what amounts to a miniature drama of innuendo: the art of the tease.

A closer look at a seeming tree of human figures in Stephen Paul Day's Biblical Branch ultimately reveals what looks more like a bunch of killer apes.
  • A closer look at a seeming tree of human figures in Stephen Paul Day's Biblical Branch ultimately reveals what looks more like a bunch of killer apes.

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