REVIEW: Charles Papillo's THINGS YOU WANTED TO MAKE REAL at JDK in Burlington

By Janet Van Fleet

I first encountered Charles Papillo’s work when I curated an exhibit on the theme of the circus at Studio Place Arts last year and decided to create a sequestered space in the gallery for a sideshow. There I installed some strange and edgy pieces from three artists that introduced a dark side to the more upbeat acts filling the rest of the gallery. Papillo’s work in the sideshow included desiccated baby birds (some with colored embellishments) and a shriveled racoon hand and wrist, all displayed as specimens in bottles or jars.

These same works, joined by many others, are on display at the JDK Gallery on Maple Street in Burlington in a show entitled Things You Wanted to Make Real, exhibited in great profusion on one long wall. The installation suggests a Victorian museum of curiosities, with drawings, sculptures of ceramic over steel, large clay beads, encasements, and almost a dozen shelves faced with fringe (some holding the aforementioned bottles). Or maybe it’s an anthropological museum of artifacts from a dead civilization, or from an alternate universe.

A rough symmetry is introduced into the installation by the central placement of a huge paper piece with painted wedges like a screwball roulette wheel. This is completely covered (see detail at right) by a stream-of-consciousness narrative called The Red Flame Bird, written in elegant and legible white printing. Fragments of the narrative seem to hint about the installation: “jewel-encrusted tar-feathers” ...“We breathe through free-range cotton stalkings held upright by rusted pulley systems, until we have completely consumed ourselves out of consumerism” ... “not vessels full to the brim with mixed fruit concoctions of emerald and sapphire could rectify his need for more.”

Two large drawings of infants flank this central narrative at a small remove – Anatomy of an Urchin Baby’s Stomach and Anatomy of an Urchin Baby’s Brain. The babies’ bodies are covered with writing presenting what must be sound effects for the multicolored body parts referenced in the titles: GURGLE SLURP (stomach) and PITTER PATTER (brain).

Everything seems made of stuff with a previous life, though the handmade paper and small ceramic pieces are necessarily of the artist’s recent manufacture. Nevertheless it seems old. The drawings and paintings are on paper that is either quite old, yellowed, and weathered, or that has been deliberately stained and scoured. The result is vaguely shamanistic or ritualistic.

Something that kept bouncing around in my brain (that may have more to do with my brain than with the work on the wall) has to do with how art (along with everything else in our culture) is gendered. For example, on the shelf shown here, with Mother Spirit and Tiger Lily Steed, we have (on the one hand) a girl and her horse, which is such a Girl stereotype, and (on the other hand) an image of The Goddess/primitive Venus, which is such an icon of feminist insistence on representing the deity in female form. And those pitter-pattering babies and the pretty fringe. I love that this work was made by a man, but I’m trying to understand (or at least riff on) what it all means. Is it that the toss of the dice or roll of the roulette wheel determines our labels and so it’s all chance, just Maya, the illusion of being? Is it that these dead and artificially-aged creations, full of so much bird imagery, are mileposts on the wheel of time, appearance and disappearance? Stomach vs. Brain, spirit vs. body...? Or maybe it's that duality is not the point.

Whatever it is, it is wonderful – the product of an inventive mind and an able, consistent, and delicate hand. You can spend a lot of time just reading the text in this exhibit, and all of the works are gems of fancy. Go see for yourself, and, in addition to enjoying the work, maybe you too will be inspired to speculate about The Meaning of It All.

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