The most exciting art exhibit currently on display in downtown Durham is to be found at Branch Gallery. George Jenne's amusingly profane multi-media installation is in turn humorous, hideous and revelatory.
Jenne titles his work DIAMOND JUBILEE, referring to the Boy Scouts of America's 75th anniversary celebration that occurred in 1985. The event was apparently a pivotal one for Jenne, who in his artist's statement explains: "This current work describes the inherent trauma in coming of age. Awkward physicality, adolescent hazing and uncanny juvenile wisdom propel an underlying narrative of the clash between naiveté and harsh realization." Indeed, Diamond Jubilee succeeds in unearthing the torments of adolescence, laying bare the manner in which children are bludgeoned into maturity.
Central to Jenne's installation is the mixed media sculpture "Hellion" (2007), a bloody-kneed Boy Scout topped by a monstrously furry head. The work is horribly hypnotic, and upon closer inspection (a viewer will likely proceed with great caution, considering the grunting noises emanating from the little beast's pipe-fitted mask), one realizes that the real devil is in the details—the details here being the scout's subversive collection of "merit badges." One wonders what scatological tasks had to be undertaken to earn these randy patches—each of which are stitched with totems familiar to visitors of school lavatories the world over.
Diamond Jubilee is a not-so-wholesome American reworking of the archetypal power play enacted by adults and pubescents. Think of the children populating Günter Grass' Danzig Trilogy, especially Oskar Matzerath, the anarchistic man-child central in the ribald The Tin Drum. Bright children do not easily operate within the cloud of cognitive dissonance that envelopes so much of the work-a-day adult world. Organizations like the Boy Scouts (or, for that matter, Hitler Youth) seem to create extra-familial social hierarchies in which young boys learn of the malleability of morality and the benefits of conforming to the existing order.
Diamond Jubilee wallops and drives home the point that one of our culture's most tragic aspects is that often our autonomy is stymied at precisely the moment when we're capable of truly developing into unique personalities. "Children are not yet fools," wrote psychiatrist R. D. Laing, "but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high IQs if possible."
Also at Branch Gallery is THREEFOLD SUN, a thoughtful series of color photographs by Taj Forer. Serving as a contemplative counterpoint to Jenne's hellish vision, Forer shows us a much more humane country, focusing on Waldorf schools and country farms throughout America.
Though there are certainly serene moments in Threefold Sun, there's also plenty of drama playing out in the quiet periphery of Forer's understated photographic artistry: in "Kitchen Table" (2006) a chair is pulled slightly askance from a cozy table; in "Boy with Bloody Nose, San Diego, California" (2006) a youth stares almost plaintively at the camera until the minuscule amount of blood reddening his upper lip is noticed. Gallery visitors with a poetic sensibility will be moved by Forer's documentation of moments simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary.
Diamond Jubilee and Threefold Sun are on display at Branch Gallery, 401-C Foster St., through Feb. 24. Visit www.branchgallery.com or call 918-1116 for more information.
Through This Lens Photo Gallery in Durham is exhibiting ALLEGORY, a series of pristine black and white nudes by Polish-born photographer Wojtek Wojdynski. Carefully crafted, each image displays an almost obsessive attention to technical detail. Wojdynski apparently micromanages every element in his photography: the lighting, the poses, the digital printing process and, of course, the selection of models, all lithe young women inhabiting smooth bodies, curvy but lacking an iota of corpulence.
In Wojdynski's artist statement he writes of "a quiet passion not for sexuality but for the beauty of human geography." It becomes apparent that he means a specific type of human geography—the idealized female form. There's nary a wrinkle, pimple or blemish that hasn't been masked by makeup or obliterated by Photoshop, nothing to suggest that Wojdynski has an interest in exploring the base reality of ontological existence.
Wojdynski uses his models as pawns on a chessboard, his aim apparently to become a puppet master of the "perfect" feminine figure. Recalling Man Ray's "Le Violon d'Ingres" (1924), a work where handily placed f-holes transform a woman's back into a living cello, Wojdynski often positions his subjects into poses that evoke nonhuman structures, the "allegory" exposed in titles such as "Lunar," "Squid" and, of course, "Knight," "Rook" and "Bishop" (all 2005).
Despite the assertions of Wojdynski's artist statement, Allegory hardly captures the "beauty of ordinary things and people." His elegant photographs derive their power from the utilization of conjured loveliness, hardly ordinary, hardly lacking sexual appeal. In a culture where the female (and increasingly, the male) form is so ubiquitously objectified for economic gain, some viewers may find Wojdyski's puppetry troubling. Others, perhaps those more comfortable in their own skin, will gladly enter Allegory's realm of sensual pleasure.
Allegory is on display through Feb. 14. Contact Through This Lens at 687-0250 for more information or visit www.throughthislens.com.