Exploring Innocence and Experience

–Maxwell Redder

Thunder-sky, Inc. Gallery is one of Cincinnati’s most unusual. The current exhibit, INNCE/EXPCE, running through Aug. 10, 2013, is inspired by a collection of poems / prints written by the great 18th & 19th Century English poet, painter, print maker, William Blake. Its title: Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The collection itself is broken into two parts, Songs of Innocence, and, Songs of Experience. Each Blake poem is surrounded by images, hand colored etchings. INNCE/EXPCE mostly consists of works by Cincinnati-based Emily Brandehoff, and recent Cincinnati-based Robert McFate; each exhibiting literal and conceptual, serious and humorous, broad and concise interpretations of Blake’s now famous collection.

Brandehoff’s works certainly plays on the overall theme of innocence moving into experience, often displayed as the destruction/loss of innocence. Her pieces have a tragic undertone in which innocence seems to succumb to the pressures of deviance, as if John Locke’s observation that we are all born inherently good and then manipulated by our surroundings, always ended tragically.

Innocence and Experience, is a sculptural wall hanging diptych. The left side presents an innocent looking female doll wearing an elegant red dress with laces. The doll has beautiful blond curly hair with crimson lipstick and holds its hands extended outwardly and invitingly, as if welcoming the viewer to a warm experience. The right side of the diptych, however, displays the same doll, only after losing her innocence. The same red dress is cut short, revealing the vaginal region. Her lipstick is blackish purple. She now has facial piercings and a messy short haircut. She wears black boots and is adorned with tattoos: sounds like a hipster, right? However, in this context the doll is representational of a drug induced prostitute–a loss of innocence.

Continuing with the use of the diptych, Brandehoff offers us a loss of innocence through the presence of drug abuse in her piece titled, Meth: Not Even Once (Meth Heads); a before & after drawing of a woman who abused meth. Brandehoff’s diptychs mimic the style in which Blake wrote his collection of poetry.

Blake often juxtaposes poems in Songs of Innocence with Songs of Experience. Several examples include “The Little Girl Lost” vs. “The Little Girl Found,” “The Little Boy Lost” vs. “The Little Boy Found,” “Infant Joy” vs. “Infant Sorrow,” or more abstractly “The Lamb” vs. “The Tyger.” The latter example, Brandehoff combines the idea of a lamb and tiger into a single piece, Silence of the Lamb (from “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”), in which she morphs a lamb head with a tiger body. The lamb is symbolic in the Christian church as a soft and gentle creature representative of Christ, whereas the tiger is a flesh eating predator. By combining the two, she reveals the notion that both creatures have the same creator, the notion that both the predator and the prey exist under the same God, a notion Blake himself often worked with in his poetry.

Current events filtered into both Brandehoff and McFate’s work. Brandehoff, in her smallest piece title, Innocence Lost, offers us a painting of a backpack in reference to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

McFate offers us an equally sullen current event piece, Angel Tree, the title derived from Blake and references the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT. He uses Kool-Aid twist caps, representing angel wings, pinned onto a painted tree: one cap for each life lost. A piece of circular glass floats in front of the tree acting as a television screen revealing the story as it unravels, or perhaps as a scope of ascension sending their souls to a mystical realm.

McFate’s work uses Songs of Innocence and Experience in a mostly literal fashion. Most of his pieces share Blake’s poem titles and many borrow elements of the hand colored etchings. McFate’s style heavily falls into the category of Folk Art, a movement that has been growing in popularity since the early 20th Century. Blake himself could be described as a godfather of outsider art considering that he was generally unaccepted by the public and truly considered an outcast. McFate’s artwork relies heavily on giving new life to found materials, which is relevant to Blake himself as a poet and artist who was abandoned in his time, later to be rediscovered and brought back to life.

One of the most striking pieces of McFate’s, Holy Thursday, shows a London block from a bird’s-eye-view. Above the block are split walnuts painted white representing children’s faces scrubbed clean. The children are waiting in a courtyard preparing to march. Holy Thursday was an annual event where thousands of London’s poorest children were marched through the streets into St. Paul’s Cathedral. McFate lines the outside of the piece with thorny branches, a likely association to Christ’s crucifixion and reference to the children’s crusades as one of the most denigrating actions within the history of the Church. His drab, monotone color palette emphasizes the poem’s dark mood.

An impressive larger construction of McFate’s combines driftwood, a sign, and painting plywood. It is titled and riffs on Blake’s, Voice of the Ancient Bard. Driftwood, representing the poem’s mention of ‘tangled roots,’ is combined with wires to create a guitar, which is mounted upon wood with painted figures stereotypical of the sixties and seventies; one wears a peace symbol, one is smoking a joint, one waves a sign that says “Truth will set you free.” Voice of the Ancient Bard reminds me of the folk artist Rev. Howard Finster, who uses wood cut outs and similarly illustrative painted figures. The use of color is direct and illustrative, a gift of modern art.

Arguably the strongest piece of INNCE/EXPCE is the collaboration between Brandehoff and McFate, Garden of Love, in which darkly painted figures aimlessly approach an eerily looming chapel. Blake’s poem describes a garden that used to be filled with luscious flowers, years later to instead become filled with graves. The color palette is eerie and dark. The cross atop the chapel has literally been bent, perhaps as a reference to the church itself being injured, yet the ghostly figures dressed in black robes still line up to enter its doors.

Brandehoff and McFate’s overall interpretations of Blake’s collection are occasionally powerful, often engaging, and certainly varied, making INNCE/EXPCE a success. It’s a joy to see this unique idea for a gallery exhibit unfold appropriately.

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