The Asheville Art Museum’s current show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk is a respectful bow to North Carolina history. But the works that most do justice to the exhibit’s title evince a childlike simplicity.
Most of Dream or Nightmare: Images of Air and Space in Contemporary Art takes itself very seriously. Curator Frank Thomson smartly pairs the pieces with literary quotes: Marilyn Bridges’ silver-print photos, for instance — 1970s-era aerial views of the mysterious, ancient Inca sites in Peru — are accompanied by a passage from The Floatplane Notebooks, a bittersweet family epic by Clyde Edgerton.
The work chosen for the show’s promotional postcard is Robert Yarber’s “Floating Isolates,” a garish painting depicting two cartoonlike figures floating above an ugly, overdeveloped coastal landscape.
But Roy De Forest’s dreamy, lighthearted drawings — inhabited by Crayola-colored, machine-shaped creatures — are much more fun. “Untitled,” set in a wildly decorated frame, shows a skinny, propeller-driven plane containing passengers in an open cabin, their hair flying back in stiff spikes. In the area normally reserved for landing gear, we see protruding, trousered human feet. Below it is a smaller plane with a bird’s head, feathered wings, and more human feet. Another of De Forest’s planes sports purple lips, a red tongue, a black mustache, and a blue dog in the cargo hold.
Excerpts from “High Flight” by John G. Magee feel just right displayed with this work:
“Oh, I have slipped the bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings:
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung.”
And just as the images and text lead us into this joyful soaring, we’re reminded that the poet/soldier “died when his plane was shot down in December 1941.”
Andrew Saftel isn’t the show’s best-known artist, but his work certainly holds its own. The question of what a hanging ship is doing in an exhibit about flight quickly becomes moot. Plain fun, the delightful sculpture recalls Johnny Depp’s campy star turn in Pirates of the Caribbean. Built of open pieces of wicker and wire, and decorated with plastic beasts and a section of a carpenter’s rule, the ghostly ship, called “Past Away,” is suspended at a rakish angle and casts an intricate shadow on the flat pedestal beneath it.
Saftel’s other contribution, “What’s the Hurry,” is another ship — a spaceship this time. Identified on its label as a mobile, the piece does move — ever so slightly. Both are open structures showing subtle color.
Entwined with the craft are a black Mary Jane baby shoe, a tarnished knife and fork, and a plastic rhino. But for all the frivolity of their parts, Saftel’s works radiate a strange dignity.
Those interested in how the art world’s heavy hitters explore the idea of flight might take a field trip to Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art, now showing its own commemorative exhibit featuring Vito Acconci, Alighiero Boetti, Malcom Morley, James Rosenquist and Andreas Gursky, among other contemporary masters.
In lieu of that long drive, though, a visit to Pack Place to probe the imaginations of De Forest and Saftel will provide a fine lift.
Dream or Nightmare: Images of Air and Space in Contemporary Art shows at Asheville Art Museum at Pack Place through Sunday, Feb. 8. For more information, call 253-3227 or visit www.ashevilleart.org.