Secret in the attic

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d most likely walk right by the undersized yellow sandwich board parked on the sidewalk in front of Sluder’s Furniture Store. (“Umbra,” whispers an announcement tacked on the board, accompanied by a blurred, black-and-white photo of a girl under an umbrella. Little arrows point inside.)

And that’s understandable — who’d ever think to look for an art exhibit inside a furniture store?

Chris Perryman is the only student in UNCA’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program who presented his senior project off-campus — indeed, he says he may be the only student in the history of the art department who was allowed to make that choice. (Perryman works for Sluder’s).

Winding your way through the store and up a hidden staircase, you find yourself at the threshold of Chris’ world.

“‘Umbra’ means the darkest part of the shadow,” Perryman explains, further offering: “Art is like a foreshadowing of an understanding of whatever time you are living in.”

That delivered, he promptly whacks you over the head: Murky amber lighting and a pervasive odor rising from the sawdust-covered floor first assault, then inhabit the senses, as your eyes slowly adjust to the room’s vaguely sinister warehouse ambiance. Randomly scattered, styrofoam-filled burlap bags dangle like hanged men from wooden crossbars; attached to the top of each bag is a frayed, straw-colored rope that floats to the floor and is anchored by an even-smaller, sand-filled sack, creating a kind of maze.

On the left interior wall, looping over and over on an 8mm projector, runs a grainy, black-and-white movie track of a mysterious young woman. She ambles languidly down a deserted beach road, her back to the camera, an umbrella shrouding her head.

A continuous breeze, activated by two invisible fans, softly flutters the screen.

Finally, one makes sense of two wildly dissimilar recordings airing simultaneously in the room: the strains of 1930s French singer Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” and the subterranean exhortations of an auctioneer controlling a cattle sale.

Perryman is nothing if not cerebral.

“I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of an early-1900s auction house,” he says, patiently dissecting the installation. “But the main meat-and-potatoes for the show happened one day when my boss and I were unloading an immaculately crafted $3,000 chest. When we set it down next to a chipped TV stand with 3 wheels, he said, ‘Everything from the sublime to the ridiculous right here at Sluder’s Furniture.'”

The heart of Perryman’s thesis derives from his fascination with a futurist sense of the dynamic and the static. Futurism — an early-20th-century Italian art movement that sought to express movement within the confines of painting and sculpture — helped changed the course of modern art.

“In 1913, there was a big international expo in New York where French-born artist Marcel Duchamp unveiled his groundbreaking [painting] Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. It was not the nude he was presenting, but the dynamic action. Interesting concept, I thought,” observes Perryman.

And the girl with the black umbrella? “She is a cliched romantic image of raw idealism,” he says. Oh.

In fact, Perryman shot the film footage himself (as he controlled every detail of the exhibit, right down to sewing the hanging sacks).

“I was standing in front of the warehouse [adjoining Sluder’s] on a rainy day, smoking a cigarette, thinking about the girl I had imagined for the piece and how I could communicate it,” the artist begins.

“Then, right across the street, walking straight toward me, was a girl in a black dress with a black umbrella moving with a very directional stride. She was walking exactly how I was seeing it in my head. It just blew me away — my cigarette fell out of my hand. You just wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find somebody dressed in black with a black umbrella on a rainy day.”

An installation as all-consuming as Umbra is not frequently seen around here.

“This is the kind of art that does not lend itself to commercial exploitation. I don’t want to make art just for other artists,” he contends, adding passionately: “I have stopped looking at [other people’s] art. How the hell do you know if you are making your own art when you have all these other influences? … I wish I could think up another word for ‘art,’ because it has such a stigma around it now. I’m just a guy who works in a furniture store.”

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