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Gary L. Wolfe's paintings at NCCC

The Child Within

Gary L. Wolfe likes to juxtapose images. Doubling up on them. Sometimes by way of overlay. One image on top of another. The technical term is palimpsest. Sometimes by placing the images side by side.

Sometimes the juxtaposing works artistically, sometimes not so much.

An exhibit of his work, called Vulnerability and the Child Within, is currently on display at the Niagara County Community College gallery. It includes a videotape that consists of what were originally made as home movies of the artist as a kid—running around at play, swinging on a swing, and so forth—overlaid by more recent film or video of the same artist as an adult, but basically mimicking the actions of the kid. The same guy, the same actions, 30 or 40 years later.

But the heart of the exhibit is—are—the paintings. Which pretty neatly break down into the two previously mentioned categories: palimpsests and side-by-side juxtapositions. And just as neatly into successful and unsuccessful.

The palimpsests basically work because they are about the interesting psychological matter of the title concept, or concepts, vulnerability and the inner child. Not to mention that the palimpsestic technique is interesting visually. The side-by-side works are unsuccessful because they are basically just moralistic. Not to mention of a particularly heavy-handed moralism.

“The child is father of the man,” Wordsworth said, and the palimpsests are meditations on this poetic truth and the variety of ways it manifests, might manifest. In one instance, a young girl looking timid, diffident, fearful, and the adult woman she ultimately becomes, looking similarly anxious, apprehensive, about some unspecified situation she is encountering at the moment. With the suggestion, it seems, perhaps, still, mistrustful of her own inner resources.

Or the patrimony (of child for adult) can manifest by way of contrast, as well as reversal of stereotype, that is, with the child as inner strength term for the adult broken on the wheel of life. William Blake comes to mind. The Songs of Innocence and Experience. One painting depicts a vigorously supportive and protective child and moribund adult in a reverse Pietà pose.

Other times the child to adult connection, legacy, is more ambiguous. As in a painting of a black man of rather military bearing and his earlier self in an enigmatic pose—à la iconic Robert Longo, it seems—that could depict some kind of trauma, distress, or could be dancing.

The side-by-side juxtapositions feature images of rich and privileged against appallingly poor, first world against third world, white world against black. A lingerie fashion show with sexy models in sexy semi-outfits and—incongruously—a starving African child. The work is preachy (as well as more than a little prurient, titillating) without telling us anything we didn’t already know. Irony wrought with a sledge hammer. Another work features a similar African child, it looks like, emaciated and nearly naked, on a park bench—what?—beside a well-fed, well-dressed, fat and happy white child.

Another is of white kid with what looks like a last remnant of a piece of birthday cake in his hand, but possibly now satiated of this treat delicacy, against a ghostly background of a bunch of hungry-looking black kids.

To help the viewer get in touch with his or her own inner child, a dozen or so sturdy little school chairs are arranged in a kindergarten circle in the center of the gallery around the video screen and palimpsest paintings.

The exhibit continues through February 23.

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