Vernon Street Open Studios

I went to Vernon Street Open Studios yesterday with my artist friend Francisco De la Barra, whose show just opened at the Gallery at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge.  It’s there through the end of the month.

I’m fortunate to have met Francisco.  He’s a great guy to tour Open Studios with.  His energy is contagious, and when he sees something he likes he doesn’t hold back.  We also have similar tastes in art, and while that may seem to make for dull discussion, it doesn’t mean we get the same things out of it.  But it does give us a common language to share ideas and insights.  And that common language is a rare and wonderful thing.  Music to my ears, at least.

Vernon Street has an embarrassment of riches where the talent’s concerned.  The first studio we stumbled into belonged to Tony Bragg, a wiry kid from Portland, Maine, whose work had elements of the grotesque, uncanny, and otherworldly — I saw traces of Goya in some of the more representational pieces, and loud echoes of Otto Dix and Francis Bacon (who once said “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” — which seems apt here).

There’s an intensity to all of his stuff, and a consistency — a reappearance of certain themes, shapes, characters, motifs to the point of loose narrative — that makes viewing a wall of his work compellingly like reading a graphic novel about the artist’s Id in his own private language.

 

This private language is one that artists struggle all their lives to understand themselves and uncompromisingly articulate, so it’s no mean feat when it comes across as loud and clear as it does in Bragg’s work.

Francisco asked him about a recurring character covered in hair. Broadly speaking I saw it as part of a clear fascination with the grotesque.  It reminded me of William Ian Miller’s Anatomy of Disgust, where he writes:

Hair’s refusal to stay where it started means that it has a problematic relation with our conception of innocence.  Hair is generally innocent only when it is pure and that is only before it starts to invade territories beyond the scalp.  Once embarked on its colonization of other regions it becomes everywhere a source of  danger, either because seductive or because repellent.  It is perhaps impossible to be decorous about the subject of pubic hair.

Bragg admitted that he may have developed the theme because he considers himself excessively hairy.  In his work it comes across as comical, creepy, sad — even, as he recalled one viewer commenting: “heroic”.  The fascination with it, with the strangeness of form (explored through strange forms), particularly with the oddness of bodies, human or otherwise, is potent and powerful in everything Bragg has on display in his studio.

My two other favorite artists here are Keith Maddy and Resa Blatman.

Maddy’s collage and mixed media pieces are like Miro on amphetamines…

 

Keith’s compositions can seem fussy at first, but they are, to a one, perfect.  Looking at Out of the Woods (above), for example, you get the sense of a curiosity shop packed with fascinations such that if you grabbed one and pulled it off the shelf, the whole shop would come crashing down on top of you.  There is a just-so-ness of balance and symmetry that’s at the same time organic and reflective of the process of assembling found objects.

And there is, despite the richness and density of the composition, nothing spare, and — aside from whatever narrative is in it — this immediately pleases the eye.  In fact, the colors, textures, and compositions Keith comes up with are like candy — not just any candy — Willie Wonka candy.  Magic candy.

Keith also does Christmas cards, which are delightful.  If you’re going to be in the market for some, they’re gorgeous, original little works of art, no two alike, and he’s practically giving them away at $10 a pop.

Resa Blatman’s work is as irresistible.  And it too has a perfectly organic feel…

 

The word that came immediately to mind was fecund.  She strikes a fascinating balance — her work could be precious if not for the boldness — even frankness — of her pallet, and her own fascination with the frightening beauty of swarms and the sticky sweetness of surfeit.

Each work demands and richly rewards close attention — even devotion.  The thing that strikes you is how indiscriminate the artist is with beauty.  You are as likely to find it in bats as butterflies.  It oozes out of every inch of the work — scary and gorgeous at the same time, like art should be.

Francisco and I grabbed a beer afterwards, and he gave me a tour of Union Square.  I have to say it’s refreshing to be in the company of people for whom everything is alive — with all that that entails — from order to chaos, from glory to squalor — and for whom it’s all beautiful.

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