Magi tricks

Published Monday, August 29 2022 at 8:30 am
Magi tricks
Works by Keith Francis and Don Wilkinson in Wise Guise.

Grampa Simpson is often the butt of The Simpsons’ crueler jokes. But like most characters on the long-running show, he has his moments of profundity.

“The Good Lord lets us grow old for a reason: to gain the wisdom to find fault with everything he's made!” he says in a classic 1994 episode, Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.

At what age does sagacity turn sour? That’s uncertain, but it might be said that the modus operandi of Wise Guise, a group show at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, rests somewhere on this spectrum of experience. The four exhibitors are middle-aged men seasoned enough to “find fault.” But they’re not so jaded as to be without tenderness.

The visual standup here was corralled courtesy Don Wilkinson, an artist as well as the art critic for New Bedford’s Standard-Times. Back in 2015, Wilkinson curated a show of figurative sculptures and paintings at the Narrows. More recently, the Narrows’ director asked Wilkinson to mount another show and gave him carte blanche. Well, almost blanche: Wilkinson was asked to include some of his own work this time around.

Seeking to avoid the cardinal sin of repetition, Wilkinson opted for anything but traditional figuration. Taking full advantage of his connections, Wilkinson drew on past profiles and a few friends to fill the roster. None of these artists knew each other beforehand, Wilkinson said in a phone interview. But the end results project a strong sense of camaraderie. Were the differences in material and method less obvious, you could probably imagine this an ambitious solo show.

Wilkinson’s own paintings are a kind of full-bodied laughter, an embrace of the congruity of visual culture. The continuity between alleged trash and canonical art history is asserted with a cartoonish wink. Is it ridiculous to recast Hanna-Barbera’s Squiddly Diddly and Spongebob’s neighbor Squidward as the pornstars of Hokusai’s 200 year-old tentacled softcore? Not really. The mere simultaneity of their existing in our present is a reminder that the more ‘arts and culture’ we make, the more entanglements possible. Talk about a mess of tentacles.

Three paintings by Don Wilkinson.

Superficially we might call Wilkinson’s work pop art, but pop art tends to condescend, whereas Wilkinson’s love for his subject matter is clear. An earnest style is often more productive than a purely ironic one. Case in point: one painting features another of Wilkinson’s favorite subjects, his wife Elizabeth.

Speaking of Elizabeth Wilkinson, it was through her inclusion in a juried show at the Attleboro Arts Museum that her husband found Joseph Fontinha’s work. That show (coincidentally juried by yours truly) sported a large construction by Fontinha called Blizzard Booth. That snowy relic reappears here, and while it offers first-time viewers a thrill, what works better is Fontinha’s one-liners.

In the video Brutalist Sculpture Review, Fontinha uses an iPhone to create trompe-l’œil. A buzzsaw seems to spin, but the blade is just a video playing. A handheld mixer spins furiously, though no beaters are actually attached. A PB&J sandwich is prepared, but the bread remains dry; the jelly is all pixels. In each amusing illusion, Fontinha achieves something like transubstantiation.

In another freestanding piece, Fontinha combines two monitors, with one angled slightly, and stations them below eye level enough that you’ll have to stare down. What you’ll find are Frankensteins, as each monitor plays halves of different faces. Fontinha’s imagery is of course left to the viewer’s taste, but his presentation is easily applauded. Eschewing the unreliable elements of sound or longform narrative, Fontinha’s videos are effective and engaging in a gallery setting—a feat that’s harder to achieve than it might seem. Lightly subversive and easily digested, his work is overall an exercise in impish cleverness.

Ceramic teapot by Seth Rainville.

Also working with videos and displays is Keith Francis, who teaches design at New Bedford’s Voc-Tech High School when he’s not making conceptual art. His pieces indeed evoke an instructional quality with their subject matter. At times their US history lessons can feel slightly didactic.

And what are Francis’ offerings, exactly? Apart from a large video sculpture adjacent Wilkinson’s work, Francis contributes the show’s most technically polished work with a series of pinball machines.

“Believe me, those pinball machines aren’t light,” Wilkinson confirmed. That applies to their subject matter, too. Each pinball machine is meticulously designed and constructed, and each attempts linking its visuals to programs of disenfranchisement. “Us and them,” one reads, before launching into a brief explanation of racist immigration laws in the US. Beneath that hangs an Application for Naturalization.

Truth be told, long documents are often a gamble in the gallery space. They can be effective if enlarged to consume an entire field of vision, like Jenny Holzer’s 2018 show at MASS MoCA. All Holzer did was reuse declassified military documents, but her treatment and the museum’s transformative context elevated the texts to a captivating discomfort. It feels like Francis’ pieces try to operate on a similar wavelength, but the sophistication and beauty of their craft may impede the messaging. It’s easy to get lost in their attractive machinery.

Then again, maybe an aversion to reading Francis’ included documents is proof enough of their substance to harm. That’s the Arendtian thing, no? That evil is bureaucratic and banal, and therefore, able to consume opposition quietly.

Pieces by Seth Rainville and Keith Francis.

Offering a different kind of quiet is Seth Rainville, a ceramicist who Wilkinson says “rejects the traditions of ceramics in some ways.” Perhaps that’s because his vessels hold more on their surfaces than their insides. Many of Rainville’s pieces sport exteriors illustrated in monochrome. They appear as if heirlooms from some forgotten cabinet, with time having etched stories onto their surfaces: A man and a raven. A man on a raging sea. A woman drinking from a mug, looking reflective.

Even if you don’t engage their narratives directly, Rainville’s ceramics are poised and patient. Compared to Wilkinson’s saucy humor, or the multimedia of Francis and Fontinha, Rainville’s contributions are the most subdued. When he does employ some dramatic flair, it’s unmissable, as when a dark jug hangs from an umbrella handle, levitating in a corner.

Rainville’s pieces are poetical but they don’t posture. They inadvertently pick up a thread introduced by a Wilkinson canvas which mixes Picasso’s The Tragedy with a panel from the Fantastic Four.

Picasso’s bachelor speaks words taken verbatim from the Silver Surfer, and The Thing wonders sadly why this Romeo’s dourness comes off as sexy: “He talks like…a poet! And she’s listenin’…like it’s the first time she ever heard a guy speak to her.”

The poet’s articulate sorrow versus The Thing’s heartfelt alienation: that might just summarize Wise Guise as a show. Wilkinson said the show title came from the notion of each artist working against expectation. That’s not unlike The Thing, whose character has always offered a primordial lesson in loving those who are different from ourselves.

Monstrosity has a certain honesty. The poet, meanwhile, is liable to spew bullshit. The wise guy speaks to something else. The truth? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the wise guy details, it is the often cutting sarcasm of his remarks that betray an impatience with this world, which clearly has room for improvement.

The wise guy isn’t afraid to speak up. His loudness, you know, comes from love.

FYI: Wise Guise is on view through September 2, 2022, at the Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawan Street, Fall River, Massachusetts.

Video work by Joseph Fontinha.