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Masters of Suspense

An Exhibit of "Drawings" at Mission Space Takes on the Third Dimension and Universal Horror

Will Schaff, "Bearing History's Burden," scratchboard
C.W. Roelle, "Birds Eat Worms lay low for Now," wire

By Matt O'Brien | Posted 12/12/2001

Wire Sculptures and Scratchboard

C.W. Roelle, William Schaff

Mission Space Gallery through Dec. 29

Anyone glancing at one of C.W. Roelle's wire "drawings" for very long will notice that the shadows cast by the thick, twisting black wires onto the gallery wall create as vivid an image as the tactile work itself. It is not clear what surface is, in fact, being drawn upon--the wires arranged in the air or the shadows projected from that arrangement as a kind of negative on the wall. The depicted objects are one-dimensional but arranged on different planes, resulting in works that resemble pop-up books more than three-dimensional sculptures.

Roelle's images, on exhibit now at the Mission Space, end up encouraging the kind of glee that must have confronted first-time viewers of early photography or cinema projection. They capture ordinary, trivial occurrences and display them as important events. "Man contemplating his next move" is just that: A man sits on a messy bed in a messy room. The objects that are obscured in the clutter get picked up by their shadow versions on the wall. "The best spot, it's over here" and "Peter welds and all applaud" seem to extend themselves outside the frame of the work without actually doing so; the wires are static, but the anticipated motion makes them look poised to move onto a new scene. Two of the works deal explicitly with film and many more depict scenes that belong in a nostalgic film world, where all the men look like gentlemen. Roelle's titles play with his personal relationship to his images--"I have this book of silent movie stills and I always turn to this one page and see this girl and holy cow . . . "--or indicate his desire to somehow join the film world-- "With a time machine I would have a way to woo Lillian Gish."

The largest Roelle piece provides the exhibit's most interactive moment. It's not simply the bulkiness of the work or the central placement of the piece in the gallery that makes "This guy will play violin for $7.50 an hour while you do your taxes" stand out so much from the surrounding works. This wire drawing of a three-dimensional room, its walls extending out toward the viewer, requires its own wires to be held up in place. In the foreground a man plays a violin. In the background, cluttered with bookish objects and wall paintings, another man sits at a desk and contemplates the scene. The entire wire drawing does its own drawing as it pulls the viewer into its world.

Roelle shares the Mission Space gallery with another Baltimore-transplanted-to-Providence, R.I., artist, William Schaff. Despite a much darker approach to thematic content, Schaff also shows that drawing doesn't have to simply be the application of ink or graphite to paper. He creates his grotesque cartoon figures by digging white lines out of a black scratchboard surface, occasionally surrounding the flat black-and-white pictures with a fluid, pasty, blood-red painted background. Schaff trots out Nazis, Klansmen, and monstrous, Goya-like versions of the modern everyman, and piles up skeletons and body counts so horrific that it is hard to believe the images belong to the pre-Sept. 11 world in which most of them were created.

Schaff's themes are often encapsulated by simple, darkly moralistic scenes--someone is sick or dying while someone else is inconsiderately listening to a cell phone, playing a Game Boy, or complaining about the stock market. A man roasts a marshmallow atop a woman's burning shoulder in "Working to make myself free (read from right to left)," one of many works reflecting what Schaff describes in a statement as "Holocaust Memory," or an understanding of the Holocaust based upon secondhand knowledge and history. Another man fondles a woman's breast from underneath her shirt as a passenger jet ominously floats overhead and figures hold up picket signs claiming this is not happening. All this death and destruction and everyone still seems overwhelmingly content.

Schaff's overt, even strident concerns about indifference detract somewhat from the overall effect of the images. But looking at the works purely as polarized political statements ignores the ultimately successful artistic presentation of universal horror--be it over genocide or cancer--that Schaff has created in this series, with its mouth-obsessed, vomiting figures trying desperately to hide and hold in their fears. If only those expressions and fears didn't have to be channeled into such easy messages.

Schaff also exhibits a series of skull-faced photomontages--the same skull masks he used in his art for Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven album. Schaff places skull masks on top of a variety of persons of every possible occupation and proclivity, including a 1959 Santa Claus in a Coca-Cola advertisement. This series is more subtle than the scratchboards. In the ambiguity of their purpose, the ordinariness of their surroundings, and the way in which humor is combined with elements of the sinister, the skull faces create a much more substantial and nightmarish expression of fear than the other works.

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