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James Allen and Adele Henderson at Buffalo Arts Studio

Adele Henderson's installation at Buffalo Arts Studio.
A detail from James Allen's "Foes of Our Fierce Fathers, a.k.a. Skeletons in History's Closet."

Skeletons in the Closet

Why cliché metaphorical expressions become clichés, overused, trite, limp, lifeless, is that originally—the first time employed by whatever usually forgotten genius—they were vividly descriptive. James Allen’s paintings and sculptures currently on show at Buffalo Arts Studio are an attempt to revitalize, revivify, some cliché expressions—skeletons in the closet, the shorthand term “chopper” for helicopter aircraft—by literalizing the metaphor.

An ominous-looking row of eight black closet constructions the audience is prompted to open and see what’s inside contain soft sculpture generic skeletons with caricature recognizable faces—except in one case that I couldn’t identify—of antagonist national or insurgent political leaders, the likes of Osama Bin Laden, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Fidel Castro, Stalin, Hitler.

The chopper-theme series of wall-mounted cut-outs includes several of humans fleeing wasp-like swarms of helicopters that seem not so much to kill or injure outright as somehow transform the fleers into choppers, too, like the plot of some world-gone-awry sci-fi movie. Another is of naked humans chopping, with axes, hoes, mattocks. Not real clear what’s going on in the chopper series, beyond the playing on words. Something about helicopters as aerial attack vehicles as invasive species.

Figureheads the way we use the word is a metaphor from the literal figureheads mounted on prows of sailing vessels, sculptural personifications of the vessel itself. Another wall-mounted work depicts vessel-type figurehead humans and guns of the sort the vast majority of Americans would like to see some reasonable controls on, while the vast majority of elected congressmen and women—owned as they are outright by the gun lobby—refuse to countenance any such controls. It’s not clear if the figurehead humans are gun rights advocates or victims. Both, possibly.

Another piece consists of soft sculpture disembodied hands of the schoolchildren and reaching out hands and arms of the teachers, the victims in the Newtown massacre, and the soiled hands and relief object assault rifle of the shooter, against a blue and white sky background.

By way of coincidence or avowal of ultimate ambiguity—as if to say how we’re all part of this tragedy, all responsible, somehow, for example, given the way we permit our supposed representatives to refuse to represent us on the matter—the schoolchildren victims’ hands in the Newtown work are just like the skeleton despots’ hands in the closets piece.

Also on exhibit are a score or so of Adele Henderson’s globe and flat map data displays on topics ranging from the destruction of the environment globally and locally, to a laundry list of perceived risk factors, to a list of “things to do after I am dead.”

The “things to do after I am dead” seem pretty much the same as another list of simply “things to do,” that is, presumably, before. Things like procrastinate, judge, lie, deny, rationalize, etc. The things we do all the time.

The perceived risks—fears these could also be called—include radio waves, dementia, colitis, drunk drivers, fundamentalists, acid rain, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, pesticides, snakes, glaucoma, dogma, the Patriot Act, halitosis, clowns, Sarah Palin. And many more.

Among the environmental destruction maps and globes are several on world nuclear contamination due to nuclear testing at sites concentrated in the American southwestern desert, Pacific Ocean islands, and Russian Siberia. A graph of distance-from-test-site effects of nuclear detonations consists of increasingly large concentric circles, indicating zones of total destruction, heavy damage, light damage, thermal effects, and fallout for radioactive contaminants from iodine (half-life eight days), to strontium-90 (half-life 25 years), to cesium-137 (half-life 33 years).

A local environmental destruction map centers on the area around Tonawanda Coke Company and the Huntley Generating Station, and features shock-wave effects lines for a smorgasbord of air and water pollutants.

We’ve seen some of these items before, in an exhibit last year at the Anderson Gallery, but new globes and maps have been added, and no viewer will have thoroughly perused, much less assimilated, the plethora of printed and handwritten information—including a blizzard of petroleum company logo stickers indicating drilling or other production process sites—on two pull-down hemispherical world maps, entitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying…”

The James Allen and Adele Henderson exhibits are up through June 1. A closing reception is set for Friday, May 24, 5-7pm, the inaugural M&T Fourth Fridays at Tri-Main event.

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