New York

Fred Gwyne

Barbara Braathen Gallery

Those who passed over Fred Gwynne’s first solo exhibition in the belief that it was going to be just another vanity show/media event were regrettably mistaken in doing so. Gwynne is, after all, most immediately recognizable as the character of Herman Munster, the bumbling monster-daddy of the mid-’60s sitcom The Munsters. His role was so hammy, inane, and unforgettable that it stigmatized Gwynne as an unemployably overexposed and typecast figure, but it probably helped generate his subtly barbed and reality-mocking position as the demeaned fool, excluded from and laughed at by the domain of “serious” culture. It is less surprising that an actor known for a foolish and klutzy role could prove himself to be an artist of unquestionable grace and intelligence than that he could be so damn smart and lyrically sophisticated without letting up in the least his wry persona of clownish buffoonery, comic misapprehension, and child-like naïveté. The 16 small-scale works that were in this exhibition are startling and provocative. A fantastic humorist, Gwynne forces us to accept his bizarre sense of reality on its own terms. In the end, he should be taken seriously not because his art is serious, but precisely because it so cleverly and deftly refuses to be so, even for an instant.

It may seem unfair to construct a parallel between Gwynne’s acting career and his art—the the latter should be able to, and does, stand on its own merits. However, the true quirkiness of Gwynne’s art attains its full measure of power only when seen in light of the satiric fiction of The Munsters. The underlying message of The Munsters was that people aren’t always what they appear to be—or, that what’s natural and acceptable for some is weird and threatening for others. Gwynne’s funny array of visual puns provide much the same sort of lesson, exposing the multiple meanings within language and teaching us that what we look at one way may appear quite differently in the understanding of another imagination.

Carlo McCormick