Fort Worth

“The Southern Voice”

The Fort Worth Art Museum

The Southern Voice, as recorded by Terry Allen, Vernon Fisher, and Ed McGowin, combines irony and sardonic humor with a touch of down-home charm. It is a voice for recounting dark deeds and broken romances, for making the ordinary seem extraordinary and the extraordinary seem normal. “The Southern Voice,” while more concerned with story-telling than with regionalism, captured this variety and suppleness. Narrative, character, action—virtually unknown ingredients in Modern art—were here shown working with painting and sculpture to create an engrossing exhibition.

All three artists created mixed-media pieces, and Terry Allen’s installation, Ornithopera (The Devil’s Condo) is the most mixed, and the most Southern, of all. A large wire cage the size of a chicken coop encloses a series of smaller cages and boxes, in the middle of which sits a video monitor showing a piano player, dressed like Satan, banging out a grating tune. The small cages and boxes contain coffins, plaster saints, and other bits of gothic bric-a-brac, while the large cage contains live chickens and crows who squawk and cluck along with the piano player. On the most literal level Ornithopera . . . can be read as a mordant commentary on religious fanaticism and buried violence, like a Flannery O’Connor short story recreated in three dimensions. Some features are witty, such as the provision of a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel spearing the serpent with the caption, “Urban Yard Work”; others convey a feeling of imminent but unspecified danger, like passing through a small Southern town on a hot summer night. Allen’s story line is composed of a series of startling contrasts—the animate and the inanimate, the sacred and the profane, the ordinary and the macabre. Ornithopera . . . is a theater piece in which the observer becomes a participant along with the chickens and crows.

Vernon Fisher’s two huge wall pieces, Heisenberg, A Love Story and Breaking the Code, combine painting and narrative (in the form of texts that are superimposed on the surfaces of the images). Heisenberg . . .’s text tells of two moonstruck lovers who grow disenchanted with one another as they allow sentiment to get the better of them. “The pronouncement that unbalanced everything,” the narrator tells us, “came like a red-cross package arriving twenty years after the war: She loved him in return.” The story is intended as a prosaic illustration of August Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle,” which states that perfect visual observation of an electron is impossible, since the moment the electron is struck with the particle of light which would enable the eye to see it, it changes speed and direction, invalidating the experiment. Heisenberg’s theory undermined the belief that nature operates according to fixed laws; Fisher’s story does the same thing to idle romantic notions about eternal love. “You can have it so long as you don’t want it,” the story ends.

In Breaking the Code Fisher covered three walls of the museum with paintings of clouds and a time-zone map, each of which becomes a visual backdrop for an anecdote about an indecipherable code: a wife tries to keep track of her wayward husband by matching the select-o-buttons on his car radio with actual places; a child cannot find Easter eggs because he doesn’t realize that they are always hidden in obvious places. A black bomber, painted on the ceiling, hovers overhead. The stories are fine on their own terms, but what makes Fisher’s two pieces so compelling is the way text and image enhance each other instead of proceeding along separate paths. The narrative isn’t just a bit of clever surface decoration, in other words, but a means of modifying and enriching our experience of the entire work. These are at once Fisher’s most ambitious and most accessible works.

Ed McGowin, the only artist in the show actually born in the Deep South (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), has created a freestanding sculpture, Love Story, that might have arrived from NASA by way of Oz. A large (11 feet by 10 feet by 8 feet) metal box is covered with screened photographs of “John and Sarah,” whose childhoods, engagement, marriage, and anniversary make up the narrative. Inside the box, visible through two windows, are two chairs and a bronzed cake decorated with the word “Happy.” John and Sarah are happy, in an ordinary, uneventful sort of way. Yet the interior of the box is so much colder and bleaker than the exterior that we begin to wonder whether there is a gap between their public and private selves. McGowin has written a story fragment to accompany the sculpture: at one point John says to Sarah, “It is so amazing that we got together. Just think . . . if we had been born a minute later each, it could have changed our lives so that we may have never met. We would never have had Sarah and she would have never met John.” True, yet a commonplace. A cliché. Is McGowin poking quiet fun at John and Sarah, or merely using their situation to restate a universal truth? Or both? As in Heisenberg . . . the philosophical and the mundane come together here in fascinating ways.

“The Southern Voice” might have been called “Chance Encounters of the Absurd Kind” and still have made its point. The regional elements, though unmistakable, were really no more than convenient starting points for the examination of larger questions, to which, of course, there are never easy answers. In this exhibition, as in most good stories, what is left unsaid is as significant as what is spelled out.

David Dillon