“Contemporary Narrative” is up through January 10, 2014 at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, and it’s worth a look just to wander through the big space and appreciate some easy-on-the-eye drawings, paintings, ceramics, and other pieces that really don’t seem to narrate a contemporary story as much as convey whimsical little vignettes across a rainbow spectrum of birds, houses, ghosts and moonlight.  It’s more romantic and fanciful than anything else, and the whole show, curated by Terry Kern, has a storybook comfort about it that is actually more decorative than narrative, more wistfully nostalgic than contemporary.

One of the more serious takes is by David Umbenhour, a graphite drawing called “Dinner at Eight” that has a black-and-white-cinematic glow about it, an almost menacing film-noir glare.  The large drawing is of the back of a house with the porch-light on and the moon glittering through tree-limbs.  It’s a scene that is about to go narrative, but lingers in the moment before anything happens so that it feels as if the whole picture is on the prowl for a story to connect to.

Pam Korte’s small lyrical porcelain pieces conjure doll-houses and jewelry-boxes, but also have a blanched and serious color scheme, an arch simplicity.  “Where the Light Gets In” is boxy but also strangely heavy even while it seems hollow, with burnt-looking little windows not letting anything in or out.  In contrast to Korte’s blocky minimalism, M. P. Wiggins collaged paintings bring in a Paul-Klee innocence and menace, especially in her penultimate piece “The Totem People,” a painting reverberating shape and tone with pastel flourishes and stick-figure contortions; there’s a mysterious radiance in Wiggins’ work, and in this singular piece that stained-glass soulfulness gets sharpened into a scene barely able to be made out, but stern enough to haunt its way past quirkiness.

Nancy Hopkins’ “Murder of Crows” are hand-carved crow heads with beaks aflutter, jutting out of the walls like whispers turning into screams.  The collection of all that frantic silent screeching is both unnerving and mannered, decorative yet disturbing, so that it somehow references funhouses and souvenir-shops in one fell swoop.

Ronald Gibbons extended, exquisite colored-pencil-over-gesso drawings featuring elegant European backdrops have a filmic quality that also blurs into dream – it’s narrative along the lines of movies that don’t get made but stay in your head and dissolve into dream.   And dreamy too are Renee Harris’s takes on the twee formulation of bird-drawing meeting embroidery, an exacting preciousness that somehow also feels slightly unsettling like a Wallace Stevens poem.

In fact, “Contemporary Narrative” as a whole has a sweet yet disquieting feel to it as you walk through, as if you’ve drifted into a dream while watching a documentary on PBS.  It’s both soothingly tranquil and gently disconcerting, taking its cue possibly from poetic narratives that hardly ever get told but somehow work themselves out in pictures.

Other artists in the show include Curator Kern and Richard Hague.

–Keith Banner

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