It's not your ordinary, everyday art show. No, visitors to 3 Ring Circus's Big Top gallery on Clio Street may be forgiven if they at first think they've stumbled on a construction zone -- or maybe a checkpoint or prison compound. On entering, you immediately confront what looks like a stockade of sorts, a massive enclosure of wire mesh fence, concrete blocks and heavy timbers. Two sets of stairs at the end seem inexplicably foreboding. Why would anyone want to go up there? But then, why would anyone not?
News junkies might be among the first to comprehend that sense of foreboding, as memories of the Afghan war and the aftermath of 9/11 slowly begin to stir. Remember those "unlawful combatants," the foreign nationals in Afghanistan who got shipped to Guantanamo in blindfolds and orange jumpsuits and were held indefinitely in hurricane wire pens? Something about what we see here recalls their shadowy, controversial images in the post-9/11 news videos. A wire fence and concrete block enclosure in a gallery is a disconcerting sight, especially when pyramidal staircases at one end give it the look of a police-state ziggurat.
In fact, there's something strange going on with those stairs. Hinged to a wall at one side, each tread is suspended by a rope at the other side. All of the ropes are pulled tightly into a small square hole in a door at the far end, a doorway to the mysterious concrete block enclosure. What goes on in that little room? To find out, you must go up the stairs, which turns out to be a literally unsettling task: the treads held up by the ropes tend to bounce as you ascend.
Once on top you find yourself on a gangway that doubles as a banquet table set with knives, forks and plates. Very dreamlike. It is only when you walk across it to the other side and peer down through a panel of clear corrugated plastic that you see the form of the orange jump-suited prisoner. Strapped down, head covered by a black hood, he seems to writhe with every movement of a stair tread. Now we know where those ropes end up, and it's all rather diabolical in the way it makes the viewer unwittingly complicit, a participant in the apparent torture of what could be a prisoner in any of the wars, uprisings, intifadas or "troubles" that erupt anywhere on the globe at any given moment. It could have been hokey, but McClay, a native of Northern Ireland who attended the University of Ulster in Belfast when that country's "troubles" had reached a boiling point -- when entire neighborhoods became armed garrisons, and the British army was routinely accused of police-state tactics -- apparently had enough first-hand experience to impart an air of authenticity to his work. An unusual piece in an unusual gallery.
No less unusual, though for very different reasons, is the Rendezvous exhibition of new Bulgarian art at the Duque Art Center. Made up of work by five native Bulgarian painters now living in the United States, the show is a visual smorgasbord of styles and philosophies ranging from minimal simplicity to baroque complexity. At first, it would seem that all these artists have in common is their national origin, but there is also a certain illustrational quality common to all, which may be no surprise when you notice their backgrounds in graphic arts and design. Other commonalities include a certain lyricism of line.
All most of us know about Bulgaria is that it sounds exotic, and in this show it is Peter Mitchev's work that may come closest to fulfilling such expectations. In canvases that can be as ornately patterned as an oriental rug, Mitchev places stylized, mostly female, figures and various animals in languorous poses that seem to meld nature, culture and mystery into the visual equivalent of a tone poem, a symphonic rendition of a folk melody. Kina Bagovska explores sometimes-related themes on her often even busier canvases where hints of cubism and vorticism suggest a kind of rhapsodic crescendo.
Still, anyone who comes here looking for Bulgaria will mostly find the personal visions of five unique artists who live in an increasingly globalized world.
- Malcolm McClay's Empire/Umpire installation at The Big Top makes visitors re-think the entire concept of the "unlawful combatants" stowed away in Guantanamo.