Societies in the throes of bad times—whether a war or a cratering financial industry—aren't obliged to present the observer with public displays of misery, of garment-rending and teeth-gnashing. For example, Andre Zucca's notorious photos of civilian life in Nazi-occupied France show stylish, flirty young people—not trainloads of Jewish captives and scenes of Nazi humiliation.
Such were my thoughts as I spent a warm, pleasant evening last Friday in downtown Raleigh. I was there to look at art on First Friday, and I was struck by the city's affluent mellowness. Raleigh's Southern ease has never been more gratifying, really. With a mixture of purpose and randomness, I jostled through the offerings of several galleries, and I regretted missing others.
In a perhaps coincidental nod to the economy, Lump Gallery put up a show in which nothing was for sale: Penned was curated for a Baltimore, Md., venue by a group that included Bill Thelen, the chief instigator of Team Lump. (View the complete show online.) The show's mandate was low-tech and low-budget: Artists, mostly in the mid-Atlantic region, contributed a wide array of sketches created solely with pens. On first glance, the show doesn't look that impressive—just a lot of sheets of paper tacked to the walls—but they reward repeated circuits around the room. The offerings range from comic strip panels to insta-sketches of celebrities to obscurantist, Henry Darger-style combat narratives like Eamon Espey's "The Courtship of Glyptodon and Der Golem," executed with a quill pen.
There are dozens of sketches, and virtually all of them include a small photograph of the pens that were used. Some artists tell us about their specialty wares, such as a "Koh-1-Noor Rapidograph pen, size 0, width .35mm filled with Koh-1-Noor Rapidograph Ultradraw waterproof ink." (This was from Sarah Laing, to describe the creation of her expertly drafted "Swarm," a composition that looks like a mosh pit of moss.)
At the other extreme, Mark Price tells us he used a Sharpie "lifted from a chain supply store" to create his arresting study in a struggle between black positive space and yellow negative space called "Infinite Consumption Against Infinite Conquest."
Of the handful of Triangle contributors to the show, Jerstin Crosby's depiction of a pair of rabbit rescuers is created out of black ink that fills in negative space to reveal rescuers holding a handful of white rabbits. Rabbits have taken on a sinister affect in recent times (as in Donnie Darko and David Lynch's rabbit sitcoms), but here they just might be bunnies. Chapel Hill author and artist Daniel Wallace has a sketch called "He could fly but only high enough to avoid the dogs," which depicts just that, and also reminds me of Lynch and an alt-weekly comic strip he used to draw called "The Angriest Dog in the World."
Over in the Warehouse district, the combination studio/ exhibition space Flanders 311 has four small shows up in its gallery. Before I even entered the building, however, my attention was snagged by a sculpture visible through the window. By Washington, D.C.-based Carol Gellner Levin and titled "Fertility," it depicts eight naked babies, bleached white, in what appears to be a group free-fall through the air. However, it's only an assumption that they're in the air: It could also be a representation of them suspended in amniotic fluid, for example, or even inside a swimming pool (think of the famous cover of Nirvana's Nevermind album). Identically plump, the expressions on their faces could be that of joy.
Near some mildly surreal paintings by Diane Feissel is a series of uniformly small canvases by Rebecca Alvarado. At first, I was struck by a figurative style that seems reminiscent of Victorian kitsch—a not altogether pleasant sensation. But closer examination reveals a rather macabre, if diffuse, narrative of the passage from girlhood to womanhood, complete with tastefully bloody imagery. I especially liked "Blanket," which depicts an adult woman, with a nude torso, gazing pensively to the rear of the composition, where the legs of her girlhood, adorned with a tutu, hang on a coat rack. Tellingly, the legs of the adult aren't visible; they're covered by the titular blanket. I'm not sure it's necessary, but Alvarado also likes to make the preparations for her paintings visible. We see marginal notes scrawled on the edges of the pictures, and here and there some masking tape has been left (or applied ex post facto?) on the canvas. Alvarado's obsessively feminine content and intentionally overheated symbolism—such as a towering crown of thorns on a girl's head in one painting—calls Frida Kahlo to mind.
The quartet of exhibits in Flanders is capped by Ron Ward's series of portraits of abandoned mannequins. He found his models, as it were, in a warehouse and took pictures of these forgotten women with a soon-to-be-obsolete Polaroid—without any formal lighting, he says. He then transferred the images to 16 inch-by-24 inch paper, which hangs on the walls. The result is transfixing. Ward doesn't manage to thaw these frozen figures, but he does give them a more dignified context: These plastic women seem to be extras in a barely remembered movie from the mid-20th century, a status typified by the print titled "Here's Looking at You Kid (Here's to You Kid)": Only when I peered at the fuzzy background behind the mannequins did I see the outline of a poster for the movie Casablanca, with the recognizable profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. A bygone world, indeed.
A few doors down Martin Street, Luke Buchanan's show at DesignBox first pledges allegiance to the hipster's favorite musical savant, Daniel Johnston. Visitors are greeted by the lyrics to his song "Some Things Last a Long Time": "Your picture is still on my wall, on my wall/ the colors are bright, bright as ever/ the red is strong, the blue is true/ some things last a long time."
Accordingly, Buchanan's oil paintings concentrate on old places, of which he seems to have specific memories. His compositions depict empty but not necessarily abandoned urban edifices, all slightly distorted as if shot through a fisheye lens and then pieced together in collage-like squares. But instead of simply being a moody rumination on desolation, Buchanan's best canvases find surprising signs of life amid the grimy details. In one, titled "The Logical Outcome of Our Ridiculous Lives," we see the panorama of what appears to be the front of an old gas station. But what catches our eye through the rainy emptiness is what looks to have been an air pump. Its iron fixtures seem like arms akimbo, tartly telling us to pay attention. It's a sad old world in this gallery, with only rusting inanimate objects remaining, and that seems to fit the times.