It may sound improbable, imponderable, paradoxical if not pathological, but people like to be spooked. How else to explain the popularity of Halloween, or writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, or Edgar Allen Poe before them? Clearly, danger, death and gothic grotesquery are as American as apple pie, and can even be sexy, as Anne Rice's largely female aficionados know so well. But only if it's consensual -- involuntary terror doesn't count.
In visual art, gothic sensibilities appeared early on in the work of Bosch and Grunewald, and were prominent in the 20th century efforts of Hans Bellmer, Max Ernst and Ivan Albright, whose images of poetic decay found sympathetic resonance in the work of our own Noel Rockmore, as well. Although Rockmore is with us no more, Myrtle von Damitz has been mentioned as an inheritor of his local goth legacy. Despite some parallels, however, von Damitz may be a bit more overt. In fact, it is obvious in this Gathering Evidence show at Barrister's that she is in a zone of her own.
The paintings range from the rather sketchy (for her) to the excruciatingly elaborated. In this latter vein, Tong Wars, a large phantasmagoria, depicts a ghostly metropolis, part Big Easy, part Addis Ababa, Alexandria or Shambala, as a geometric maze of tangled streets with weathered old buildings in helter-skelter arrangements and a turbid river lapping at its edges. Beneath the old city looms an underworld of catacombs and strange creatures, like monstrous, oversized figures from gothic folk tales.
Hypnotic, peculiar and a little hard to fathom, Tong Wars can be taken as a surreal, otherworldly vision, or it can be seen as an allegory, a metaphor for antique cities everywhere, places where the specter of the past only looms larger as successive layers of urban life evolve. (Think of Marie Laveau, "Beast" Butler, etc.) This is the mythic aspect of those exotic places where epochs and cultures intersect. Beyond all that, Tong Wars also illustrates the oblique but distinct connection between mythology and surrealism.
Other works suggest gothic genre studies, as we see in the aptly titled A Sunday Stroll. Here crowds of people promenade through a French Quarteresque setting on a sunny afternoon, only these folks look like they've been dead for years. Even deader and more decayed than the inhabitants of certain Decatur Street bars, they are painted with the whimsy of Chagall's lovers or Ensor's masks, but they physically recall the gothic zombies and grotesqueries of Ralph Steadman, Gahan Wilson or chilling Yiddish folklore. Similar themes are seen in Storyville Stockings, a kind of lingerie party in Hades with long-dead tarts strutting their decomposing stuff. If not always consistent -- some pieces work better than others -- Von Damitz at her best gives us a richly imagined parallel universe with a ghostly Greek chorus that mimics the foibles of the living.
No less ghostly or mythic are the ceramic concoctions of Cara Moczygemba. Libertine is strikingly like those old New Orleans funerary sculptures with winged angels in alcoves flanked by Greek columns. In this case, however, the angel is more Madonna-like than angelic. Wearing a pout and little else, she stands in her diva pose as many red arms reach up to her from the lower realms. Beyond her surly expression other cracks appear, literally, in her facade. Moczygemba's often mask-like surfaces often cunningly seem as if they are about to crumble to reveal whatever mystery lies beneath.
No less monumental despite its modest size is Vanitas, a reclining figure with the body of a beautiful woman and the head of a horse. She contemplates a human skull, a classic baroque symbol of impermanence and, indeed, her shapely flesh appears laced with cracks like old porcelain. Underlying these finely crafted pieces is a sense of fame, fortune and beauty as transient, as fragile as spring flowers, but it is Moczygemba's craft and vision that gives her works their integrity. She and von Damitz share certain traits ranging from their East European ancestry filtered through the melting pot of California, to their flair for a certain Old World grotesquerie, a fascination with time's ravages. While distinct from von Damitz in technique if not in tone, Moczygemba presides over an intriguing alternate reality that has a lot to say about ordinary life in the so-called "real" world around us.
- Myrtle von Damitz's claim to a local gothic art legacy can be seen in the ghostly underworld of Tong Wars.