Back in the days of the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales weren't nearly as tidy and uplifting as their modern translations tend to be. The myths arose from cultures when humans were more mortally vulnerable, and not so comfortably removed from the genuinely dangerous everyday elements. There was so much about nature that we couldn't categorize, name, or control, and so living with this dark smudge on our awareness of the world, we became a superstitious bunch, and set about spinning stories to describe the shadows. We personified the menacing unknown. We wove tales that were disturbing, and didn't necessarily wrap up nicely.
Culture progressed, and science has increased our understanding of the way the world works, shining a probing and fear-killing light into its deepest, dimmest corners. Fairy tales, meanwhile, became watered-down, formulaic versions of themselves, and instead of being used to scare wayward children out of the woods, they are now used as comforting bedtime stories. If you've ever wondered what happened to the darker side of the fairy tales of old, the illustrations and paintings of David Christiana now on display at MCC's Mercer Gallery will provide a refreshing alternative to the saccharine modern offerings.
The show in the snug little gallery is made up of Christiana's lighter, all-ages-friendly illustrations he's done for about 20 children's books, and his creepier and more adult paintings. Some of those books are present at the gallery's desk, including "The Tale I Told Sasha," by Nancy Willard, and "Poppy's Puppet", by Patricia Lee Gauch.
Also a professor of illustration at the University of Arizona, Christiana uses his arresting style to form tightly rendered creatures in heavily textured and painterly environments, and his brushstrokes often trail off from painstaking detail to uncertain content in the shadows. The tone of the art is a medley of humorous, playful, and unsettling. The artist employs the air of mystery inherent to the fairy tale genre in every piece of art, regardless of the target age group. In the few pieces which include truly cutesy imagery, the lightness is countered by plenty of shadow, and the feeling that some things move just beyond the realm of our control. In "Puppet Solo," a multitude of dolls and toys seem to carry on their own lives behind our backs, just like we always suspected. In the "Loaf Head" etchings, the funny ogre-like creature is recorded with heavy play on proportion. The "Under a Fart Cloud" series of etchings show an unfortunate fellow with a large proboscis sulking and suffering from the title situation.
Christiana's oil illustrations read like watercolors due to his use of thin, blended washes of color, and are dreamy and darkly mythic. In the faded tones of "The Fog Crept In," garden tools stand propped against a house wall with slightly opened windows, and a simple painting of a domestic exterior becomes seriously haunting. Against the back wall is the large-scale "The Trap is Set," which reveals, with a giggle, the mischievous world of fairy, while "Egg Shell Bed" subtly recalls the days when ordinary objects held magical possibility.
The right-hand wall is reserved for the darker, more adult oil paintings, bereft of pastel colors and nearly all sense of innocence, and with the addition of more sinister-looking characters. Most of the pieces are contrasting diptychs and triptychs, with shadowy paintings of an impenetrable quality accompanied by panels of very meticulous pencil drawings on white clayboard. "Three Heads" features a triad of melancholic, loner beasts in scratched and speckled texture and an earthly palette. Many of the paintings and drawings are of creatures with hybrid, inexplicable anatomy, and are quietly threatening. The images simultaneously draw the viewer in and creep the viewer out. The silent beast in "Dog Thinking" has a real and unsettling presence in those sunken eyes, and gives the onlooker a definite sense of unease.
Christiana's paintings are little mysteries that can't be solved, because they can't quite be defined. Besides the vanishing-into-the-shadows quality that frees the creatures from our grasp, his works are dotted with finely printed, itsy messages that are every bit as disturbing and unexplained as the imagery ("out of her mouth/ribbons twigs and bones/rather than sound").
Perhaps the most truly alarming piece is the one that fits in with the others least, in that it seems less like a fairy tale than a scene from a psychological horror sci-fi. "Paroxysm" is the largest painting, and depicts a nude adult man standing in a pit or a dark pool, in the midst of a raging convulsion. He stands defenseless against his own clawing arm; in his terrified shock, he can't defend himself against himself. The landscape is well lit, relative to most of the other paintings, but scary nonetheless, which seems to indicate that though we've mastered the shadows, something to fear yet remains. If fairy tales of years past expressed our anxiety at the threat that our environment posed on our safety, and that threat is no longer felt, in what way does our existential war with our vulnerability manifest? Perhaps in the modern era, the final frontier of our fear of the unknown is within our own selves.á
David Christiana: "Interior Exterior Beings"
Through May 2
Mercer Gallery, MCC, 1000 E. Henrietta Rd
Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.