Method in the madness at ‘Fear to Tread’

“Fear to Tread”, the inaugural exhibition of Roger That! Gallery + Studios at Roger Williams University, is a somewhat harsh viewing experience that nevertheless manages to be engaging, curious, and ultimately rewarding.

The gallery is housed in an unassuming building a few blocks from downtown Bristol, Rhode Island. On the evening of the opening, in order to view the exhibition, visitors passed through a large hall that serves as a common studio space for Roger Williams’ art students, many of whom were on hand to enjoy the festivities and display some of their own works.

Curator Alexander Castro mixes the work of regional contemporary visual artists with initially head-scratching choices including an inkjet reproduction of an early 20th-century entrance photograph depicting the entrance to Ferrycliffe Farm, the site on which RWU now exists, credited to Herbert Marshall Howe (possibly), a 1991 naïve landscape painting by an unknown artist, and an advertisement for Osteo Bi Flex, originally printed in a 2003 issue of Ladies ‘ Home Journal.

And while it’s not officially part of the exhibit, in an essay Castro makes a point of noting other gallery items, such as a spray-painted IKEA desk, a woven rug, and an interior decoration. Vampire Halloween. But there is a method to his feigned madness.

William Kennedy presents an untitled acrylic painting depicting a young black boy, sitting on a car tire, against a background of two wide bands of color, one a joyful sky blue and the other a non-committal beige . He wears a striped shirt and red sports shorts. Burgundy socks with yellow stripes rise above her black sneakers.

But the most striking feature is the lack of features on his face. There are no eyes, no nose, no smile or frown. He’s a complete clean slate — a blank slate — as if anyone could project anything they wanted onto that featureless face, whether for better or for worse.

“Aquarius” by Sara Breslin, a watercolor and mixed media illustration, depicts a bespectacled, seemingly adolescent girl clutching a book or perhaps a sketchpad to her chest and smiling. The wings of an angel spring from his back and it resonates with a kind of quiet hope.

Sculptor Melissa Stern turns out to be a modern-day Geppetto, with “Tripod”, a humanoid figure constructed of wood (a tree segment), clay and ink. It was part Pinocchio and part Zuni fetish doll that terrorized Karen Black in “The Trilogy of Terror,” the schlocky 1975 ABC movie of the week.

There’s also something equally disturbing about Tiffany Landry’s “Lover’s Quarrel.” A female figure (stuffed toy or statuette or cake topper?) with porcelain skin and bright red lips wields a flathead screwdriver as if ready to plunge it into her invisible partner and end this tiff romance, once and for all.

The show is rounded out with works by Mark Kehoe, Ernest Jolicoeur, Barbara Owen, Will Forge and Linda Rogers.

Castro pokes fun at himself a bit with the title of the show. Fools rush where angels fear to tread, but Castro is no fool.

In an essay he wrote for “Fear to Tread”, Castro lays out his curatorial intent:

“I thought I stumbled across some real poetic shit. But then I lost track. Generally I think it’s about attention. From the love that attention entails, the love of many things without a connection of taste, class or hierarchy… When works of art come together, we glimpse something unreal.To juxtapose is to abolish unnecessary or harmful borders.

Nothing to fear. Walk on. Juxtapose.

“Fear to Tread” is exhibited at Roger That! Gallery + Studios by Roger Williams University, 31 Burnside Street, Bristol, Rhode Island, through December 5. The gallery will be open on Saturday, November 12 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Gallery tours can be made by appointment at [email protected]

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