My Heart Is in the Trees
And under a giant sea bird
By Gail Guengerich
Denise Weaver Ross
Temporarily unemployed people fend off boredom in various ways. Some of us learn how to play “Hava Nagila” on the ukulele and bang out the entire five seasons of “Friday Night Lights.” Others fashion an elaborate 18-foot albatross from cardboard in their parents’ living room. And by others I mean Louis Wilcox, lover of anatomy, birds and paper monstrosities.
You can see Wilcox’s giant tawny beast this Friday at Tortuga strung up ominously over Denise Weaver Ross’ show My Heart is in the Trees, now in its second week.
If you’re imagining a giant bird cut out of pizza boxes and joined together with packaging tape and staples (which would be my approach), stop right there. Wilcox’s albatross is a multi-textured, structurally complex, sexy beast of a thing—fastened, braided, clad and twisted from copper wire, cardboard, brown paper, screws and twine. The wing structure is draped with herringbone-woven brown paper for a more feathery effect; (Wilcox is also a basket weaver, a skill he picked up from his mother, textile artist Carry Wilcox). An oversized, external four-chambered heart bursts from the rib cage, inspired by Aztec sculptures that Wilcox encountered in Mexico City. This bird ripples and stretches and screams.
Why an albatross? Wilcox’s original plan for a red-tail hawk went awry. He also likes the symbolic heft of the bird. (Any Coleridge-reading English major will tell you that a dead albatross, anytime, anywhere, means you’re screwed.) “They’re also just cool, beautiful birds,” says Wilcox, who goes on to extol their salt-filtering nasal glands and amazingly efficient flying technique.
The albatross is only Wilcox’s latest installment in a “we’re-screwed”-themed, cardboard-wrought bestiary that includes a shark and a T. Rex, but it’s his first large-scale cardboard work purposed as gallery art rather than a Halloween costume. (Wilcox is a personal friend and has been terrorizing my three-year-old daughter for the last two years with his costumes.) One of his qualifications for a good Halloween costume is that it be “inconvenient for everyone ... big, cumbersome, always scraping people’s ceilings and knocking things over.”
Denise Weaver Ross
But don’t expect to be grazed at the opening—the albatross will be flying overhead. It’s Denise Weaver Ross’ work that will be clamoring on the walls. It seems a felicitous match—Ross’ pieces, oil pastel on paper, are 28 mythological stylized images corresponding to two suits (hearts and clubs) of playing cards. (An ambitious patron could collect them all, but it would be slightly awkward and sort of overindulgent to try to play Poker or Rummy with them, since they’re 40 in. x 26 in.)
Both artists point to overlaps in imagery—many of Weaver Ross’ pieces contain birds and, obviously, hearts.
But unlike Wilcox’s raw, unvarnished albatross, Weaver Ross’ pieces bloom in coral reef and tropical colors, made lavish and byzantine with multiple layers of iconography—swords, butterflies, palms of hands, crocodiles—and figures drawn from Egyptian, Grecian and Norse myth. Her sure lines and generous application of color emblazon each piece with a sort of flat art-deco brilliance. But it’s the interpenetration of the various translucent layers that infuse the cards with their psychic power.
The jack of hearts mimics the playing card in pose, but this jack is brown-skinned and weeping garnet-colored tears. His image is blended with ancient glyphs, decorative brocade ripped from the standard playing card garb, translucent Egyptian courtesans and what appears to be a more idealistic version of his younger self. Stare longer and another vaporous layer surfaces. This sleight of hand is one of Weaver Ross’ recurring tricks.
Weaver Ross says that the original card—“The Queen of Heart Transplants”—from which the deck was born represents the artist herself and her response to a friend going through a painful divorce. In “Trees,” a brown-skinned native and a heart stabbed with three swords are almost encrypted in cacophonic color.
The next card, “King of Pain and the Sickle Moon,” portrays Weaver Ross’ Jamaican husband who died of sickle cell disease in 2001. Weaver Ross never intended to do an entire suit, let alone begin a full deck, but, she says, “At that point, people said, ‘You’ve got to keep going!’” And so she did, even writing poetry to accompany each piece. (Her book House of Cards: The Heart Suit is available on Amazon. She’ll be reading from the book at the show closing on March 1, 4 to 6pm, so mark your calendar.)
Clubs morphed into leaves in Weaver Ross’ deck: “I have a great love of trees. I grew up in Wisconsin.” The Bosque’s cottonwoods find their way into the seven of clubs.
The cards range from tropical-forest pastoral, devoid of human figures, to Pagan fantastical (the four of clubs features Pagan goddesses in a bare birch tree forest) to clearly political images like the Trayvon-Martin-inspired “Three of Strange Fruit and Poplar Trees.”
The playing card conceit allows Weaver Ross’ creativity a lot of room to romp. Her rich imagery allows the viewer to romp as well. It’s a fun show, engaging on multiple levels.
Is it wise to romp under a giant airborne albatross? Maybe not. But, Humbird, the local arts partnership organizing Wilcox’s opening, promises there will be a raffle, music (local faves Wildewood and Sage and Jared’s Happy Gland Band) and food (catered by Nosh), to make it all feel more normal. It may also be wise to go in groups. Good luck.
Friday, Feb. 7, 5pm
901 Edith SE
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