In a trio of installations (all 2010) at the Dorsch Gallery in Wynwood, Clifton Childree led us along a carnival midway of the past, celebrating oddities, eccentrics and showmen. The assembled environments produced full sensory experiences and included two-and three-dimensional visual imagery, text, music, sound, black-and-white silent movies and even a faintly musty smell.
At the center of each tableau stood, or tilted precariously, a bizarre piece of furniture, built from found materials—old breakfronts, china cabinets, wardrobes with a moving image inside it. Childree shoots 16mm film, using stop-motion animation and hand coloring; he scratches, draws and writes titles on the film, and transfers the results to DVD, which he then presents on flat-screen monitors mounted inside the furniture. “I’m an analog artist in a digital world,” he says (all artist’s quotations from an interview with gallerist Tyler Emerson-Dorsch). The settings are completed with vintage rugs and pictures, antique postcards and objects significant to the narratives.
The themes of all three installations spring from Childree’s identification with the lives and dreams of dead composers: Scott Joplin, the American ragtime pianist who played in bordellos and went mad from the effects of late syphilis, finally dying after falling off the chair in which he habitually sat and played “air piano”; Alexander Scriabin, the Russian who developed a theory of an ultimate synthesis of all the arts for the sake of inducing states of mystic rapture and who died after a picked scab on his lip led to a fatal infection; and Richard Wagner, whose patron, King Ludwig of Bavaria, is the subject of the third piece. Childree uses fragments of Wagner’s compositions as “movie music” for the film component of the installation Gesamtkunstwerk, in which the artist appears, nude, in a bawdy enactment of the madness and murder of Ludwig. The Gesamtkunstwerk as a form seems close to Childree’s aspiration too, except that his genre is melodrama—that late 19th- century emotionally exaggerated type of theater usually accompanied by music, adopted by the early silent moviemakers, which so easily slides into slapstick. In his presentation of the tragic deaths of his subjects, Childree characteristically finds an element of comedy, affectionately mocking their ambitious delusions. “I like madness,” he notes.
Childree appreciates the look of the antique, the handmade. When he was a child, his musician mother gave him a copy of Max Ernst’s “The Hundred Headless Woman” (1929), the Surrealist series that combined bizarrely unrelated images cut from a book of 19th-century black-and-white engravings. He loved it. “It made complete sense to me,” he says. In this exhibition, “Orchestrated Gestures,” Childree presented a complex spectacle drawn from a wide variety of sources that, while endlessly entertaining and puzzling, made singular sense.
Photo: Clifton Childree: Gesamtkunstwerk, 2010, mixed mediums; at Dorsch.