Critics’ Picks

Charles Avery, World Map, 2008, gouache, crayon, paper, 8 1/2 x 11’.

Charles Avery, World Map, 2008, gouache, crayon, paper, 8 1/2 x 11’.


Charles Avery

FRAC Île-de-France | le plateau
22 rue des Alouettes
May 27–August 8, 2010

Since 2004, Charles Avery has devoted himself to an ongoing project called “The Islanders”—the elaboration of an invented world via texts, drawings, and objects—now on view in “Onomatopoeia.” The exhibition holds many pleasures, and it may also tempt viewers to try to hold one medium up as a key or a legend for another: Do Avery’s writings included here, excerpts from the 2008 catalogue The Islanders: An Introduction—in which a first-person narrator logs his observations as he wanders the port city of Onomatopoeia for the first time—set the objects on display in motion? Or are the matte, gouache-covered bronze portrait busts of the island’s characters prompted by the text? World Map, 2008, an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-foot projection map depicting two intricately labeled hemispheres of squiggled gold paint on a black gouache sea, seems like an obvious key. But the map’s strange geophilosophy—with entities like the ISLAND OF ULTIMATE REALITY and a mountain range called the PHENOMENON OF THE NOUMENON—never quite converts itself into allegory, thwarted by nonsense more out of Lewis Carroll than Kant (the equator is the PRINCIPLE OF THE DITHERING EEL).

Avery’s universe comes most to life in large-format pencil-and-ink drawings like Untitled (View of the Port at Onomatopoeia), 2009–10. His kinetic, scooping pencil lines coalesce in passages of tightly worked detail, such as the face of a petty criminal apprehended behind a crowd. Oddities like cat-faced monkeys roaming the island mingle with the recognizable—pudgy, idle tourists; rotten-toothed street barkers. And among a stack of books installed at the exhibition’s entrance is yet another tempting key: Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies leaps out as being sympathetic with Avery’s ethnography of a tragicomic civilization in decline.