As another hectic holiday season draws to a close, it’s time to sit back, take a deep breath, and laugh at how, once again, we let another “feel good celebration” drive us a little bit crazy. Whether it was the fruitless search for the Wii, the mindless drone of yet another especially chipper Christmas song, or a grease fire that ruined the turkey, now more than ever most of us are in need of a real holiday. But before the trees get dumped on the curb, the lights are thrown into a box for next year’s tangled mess melt down, and the brand new cashmere sweaters pill, take a look around the small neighborhood streets at the flashing lights and blow-up Santas in the distance. For this truly is the season to celebrate what Americans do best; flagrant displays of one-up-man-ship, the seamless amalgamation of the sacred with the secular, and vast amounts of energy wasting lawn ornaments, all in the name of “Christmas cheer.”
A trip through the woods- - of Edgewood Park—will take you into Westville Village. In the small unassuming, but incredibly well lit artist lofts of ArLoW, another kind of Christmas retrospective is taking place, sheltered from the snow, ice, sleet and spin outs of holiday decoration car tours. “Hello My Name is Gallery,” a quirkily named and equally charming small space gallery on the second floor, hosts the aptly titled exhibit “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” A collection of photographs by Megan Bent and light sculptures by Mark Williams, the show celebrates and critiques of all that makes Christmas the most decorated and distorted holiday in modern America.
The genius of “Hello My Name Is Gallery” is the freedom from the constrictions of traditional gallery hanging. ArLoW, the brainchild of community activist Thea Buxbaum with input from countless neighbors and artists, was created to foster artistic dialogue between the artists in resident, who rent the studios and living spaces, and the surrounding community.
“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” is the second show at Hello My Name Is Gallery, created by John Bent and Jemma Williams inside the living space of their ArLoW apartment, and the hanging of Bent’s frameless C-prints above sofas and around a common living area lend the pieces an approachable, familiar quality that would otherwise be lost on the stark white walls of a larger gallery setting. The photographs themselves, small in scale (the largest 23x18 inches) are innocently voyeuristic, a characteristic that is enhanced by viewing them in an otherwise private residence.
Bent’s photographs, a series in process from 2004 to the present, capture scenes of suburban exteriors from the fringes of Brooklyn and Queens to the suburbs and fields of New York and Connecticut. The sequence of the show evokes the ironic and occasionally eerie experience of a post-Christmas drive. When the first snow has melted leaving nothing but a few brown piles and the eagerly awaited morning has past, the lawn decorations become detached and estranged from their original purpose. They stand as a flashing, grim reminder that after their eminent removal, all that remains in our lawns for the next 3 months are the dreary grays of winter. Alongside Bent’s sardonic observations of Christmas displays are strikingly quiet reflections on the peculiar effect of early dark and the onslaught of winter on New England architecture.
“Snowmen” which greets visitors as they reach the top of the entryway stairs is a sarcastic reflection on family values and incongruous lawn displays. In this pop-like photograph, a blowup “snow family” stands in the foreground on a lush green stretch of grass, while a big yellow school bus waits parked in the background. It’s almost as if Frosty is about to attend his first day of school, his parents gathering at the bus stop to see him off. If global warming is as bad as they predict in 50 years, will this image still resonate with future generations, or will snowmen be just another detached holiday icon seemingly dreamed up by greeting card and candy companies looking for a cuddly mascot, like the Easter Bunny?
Similarly disarming are “Deer” and “Mary” (pictured), both scenes of typical lawn ornaments, shot from close up. Bent’s lens dismantles the layers of meaning and tradition behind both icons and displays them for what they are; masses of tangled, tiny light bulbs, beautiful and meaningful in their own right, but completely alienated from the worldly, or celestial, counterparts they depict and encircle. Next to the overly processed icons of holiday lawn displays, Bent captures perfectly the haunting beauty of a barn simply outlined in white lights, standing as a stark negative against the brilliance of an early winter sunset in New England, the pale gold and blues delicately etched by the lacey branches of a nearby tree.
The light sculptures of Mark Williams develop on the theme of Bent’s photographs inside by creating pieces that are instantly eye catching public art that form an unexpected commentary. The brilliantly lit sculptures are “drawn” out of multi-colored strands of Christmas lights, hand placed and stapled to a wood base board and hung off the outside balcony of the apartment on West Rock Avenue, before the Whalley intersection. At night these drawings light up to create quirky characters including a bold gold and pink banana figure, a frog and a monkey.
The fanciful light displays created by Mark Williams (pictured at the top of this review) bring the ArLoW exhibit full circle in its critique and celebration of Christmas decorating decadence. The skillful isolation and disenfranchisement of the lawn decorations in Megan Bent’s photographs lead viewers to see Christmas displays as a statement and art form in themselves, not necessarily a simple extension of the traditional Christmas tree inside these houses. Mark Williams offers viewers his own take on holiday icons, bringing in familiar characters never before associated with the holiday, and dressing them in the traditional Christmas fair.
What makes a holiday icon? Is it its traditional appearance year after year, the evident association of the icon with an event, or something we grow up with as children and find comfort and familiarity in as adults? How are we to deal with new “questionable” displays encroaching on the understated decorations of the past? Sabotage them like a leg lamp in a window or accept them with a grin and a wink in the spirit of Christmas. “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” embraces all that is typical and extraordinary about the peculiar tradition in the month of December that brings glittering light to all and makes staring intently at strangers houses socially acceptable, if only until New Years.