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The Ravages of Addiction at Casa de Arte

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Rick Williams
"The Relapsing Drunk, Final Stage (The Man Who Loved to Drink Too Much)," by Rick Williams


Addiction can be funny, as long as it’s not us. Even if that requires a substantial dollop of denial on our part. Fortunately, most of us are really good at denial. So a lot of the artworks in the current exhibit at the Casa de Arte, on addiction, come across as funny.

(Maybe the funniest addiction set piece I know is the short section beginning on page 17 of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, his brilliant, unreadable treatise narrative about addiction and related obsessiveness, about which subjects he establishes his nonpareil expertise, no doubt based significantly on personal experience. Of course, David Foster Wallace wound up tragically and most gruesomely killing himself. Ultimately, these matters are not funny, they’re deadly serious.)

The funniest piece in the Casa de Arte show is a looping video by Rick Williams that precisely translates the Sisyphus myth into a superbly Allentown context. I’ve seen this piece before at the Casa de Arte when the gallery first opened, and if it required a special topic show to reprise it, it was worth it. Worth the price of admission, one could say, except that that might seem a backhanded compliment, since admission to the gallery is free. But it’s a great funny (and sad) piece.

Meanwhile, a Rick Williams installation piece presents a single-room walk-up living space of someone well along the road to rock bottom. The central furnishing, serving as a bed, is a liberally stained box-spring, amid numerous empty or half-empty alcoholic beverage containers—cans and bottles—assorted mood-adjustment pills—reds and whites—an AA handbook, a makeshift bong, a vintage TV with improvised antenna of wire coat hanger and tin foil, and an impressive stack of mail—for the most part unpaid bills, it looks like. For food, a loaf of sandwich white bread about to go moldy, some cans of pork and beans, or just beans, and several packs of ramen noodles. Wall hangings include a gaudy ceramic crucifix and a Janis Joplin Rolling Stone cover poster.

From Jessica Pitingolo there’s a handsome uniform-field painting, it appears at first view, in shades of off-white to beige with specks of darker brown, that on second view turns out to be a construction entirely of smoked cigarette butts, aligned and densely packed, and eloquent of the fiercely addictive power of the nicotine drug. It’s a beautiful work that suddenly reveals an horrific aspect.

And from Patrick Anjhalt, several small ceramic works that may or may not have to do with the addiction subject matter. One that seems to, more or less, is a kind of tableau work featuring a hand and arm violently breaking through a wall-like barrier. Another work, about gluttony, or food addiction, features a little guy whose stomach seems to have taken over his personality. His belly has grown to become the big head, with eyes, nose, and mouth even, while the little head, on top, has shrunk proportionately. The little head a little like some tumorous growth that needs to be surgically removed.

And from the deadly serious perspective, artist and art therapist for the Veterans Administration healthcare system Ralph Sirianni’s drawing/painting called Strategy for Surviving the Day employs a chessboard and the variously weighted pieces—labeled as various prescription medications—as a metaphor for the plethora of possible drugs and drug combinations for dealing with mental health issues and other effects of PTSD. “I have encountered both good and bad medicine,” he states in an explanatory text. “One works, the other does not…Over a period of time, the good medicine may no longer be effective, and adjustments must be made…These adjustments can create upheaval. What once worked simply does not anymore. However, there’s nothing simple about a life or death situation, and readjustment of meds may present an individual with just that.”

The addiction exhibit continues through September 9. In addition to the addiction exhibit, the gallery has on display a more permanent collection of paintings and sculptures and sundries from Mexico, particularly Cuernavaca.

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