Charles Avery

Cubitt Gallery/Alexandre Pollazzon LTD

Forget about Charles Avery’s extraordinary abilities as a draftsman. Forget the complex relationships between text, installation, sculpture, model making, illustration, and the readymade; forget the overlap of abstraction, geometry, figuration, and mapping. These exhibitions (the one at Pollazzon was shared with Keith Wilson’s suspended sculpture Ring, 2006, a readymade, old-fashioned tubular iron structure that in bygone days functioned as a portable livestock pen—and which, like Avery’s work, examines notions of inside/outside) are merely introductory chapters in the slow unfolding of Avery’s vast personal cosmology, an immense fictional universe centering on “the Island,” whose every feature—from its geology to its flora and fauna—embodies a philosophical proposition. At Cubitt Gallery we encounter one of the Island’s landmarks, “The Plane of the Gods,” a flatland inhabited by, among others, Aleph Nul, an unrecognizable, elephantine creature and the eldest of all; the August Snakes, who stand upright (to best display their beards) and enjoy their own cult following and prayer; WI, the swimmer, a tall, elderly man rendered in startling detail with all his sagging flesh intact; Mr. Impossible, a beaked, dwarfish dandy (and philandering pest) with a cartoonish, Dr. Seuss–like air; Theodora (who has an identical twin cousin, Dorothea, not figured here), a demure, nymphlike creature who tends to turn her back to us; and Fraser, a three-dimensional, blocky rendition of the number 2. Eventually Avery’s whole creation is meant to culminate in an eleven-volume encyclopedia gathering all the images, texts, artifacts, and maps relating to the Island.

And it’s lucky there are maps, because those of us equipped merely with a knowledge of contemporary art are directionless in this impenetrable private epic. More like H. P. Lovecraft or J. R. R. Tolkien than a conventional artist, Avery is uninterested in the canon of contemporary art. He sells his sculptures and drawings the way an explorer might sell the trinkets collected on his last journey, as a necessary operation to fund his next expedition. The centerpiece of the Cubitt exhibition is a large, mesmerizing drawing executed in a precise, contoured style reminiscent of Egon Schiele, showing in elaborate detail the interior of Heidless Magregor’s Bar, complete with brass light fixtures, chalkboard menus, and faux wooden bar stools (Magregor’s Bar, 2006). The scene is populated by Islanders including Tobias, a seven-foot beggar behind dark glasses, and three philosophers, here spiritedly discussing the eventual elevation to demigod status of Mr. Impossible, who stands, as pompous and unlikely as ever, near the door. This unearthly, unforgettable imagery results from the unique combination of Avery’s impressive observational powers of the “real” world, his staggeringly imaginative inner life, and the precision with which he can visualize this whole puzzling place. “Day by day I spend more time there until, finally, I never return,” the artist says.

Avery might recall Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who built a universe of warring little girls. But Avery is too articulate, too accomplished a draftsman to escape public attention in the same way. Perfectly unself-conscious and undeterred by the solipsistic isolation of his work, Avery defines art as “the opposite of meaning . . . a quality that permeates the universe.” We are, in sum, light-years away from those ’90s British artists, with their desperate insistence on participating in the world at large; this independent, inward-looking art is as far away from the publicity-driven spirit of the YBAs as Avery’s distant, almost impenetrable Island itself is from yesterday’s Cool Britannia.

Gilda Williams