Narrative art sometimes tells stories we don’t want to hear. But whatever the recent work of Alice Sebrell is relating, it is so deep and so pure you won’t know the ending from any first, careless look.
This is not to say Sebrell’s work is not seductive. A quick glance gives a quiet pleasure of pale, soft grays and sparse imagery. Indeed, walking into her digital-photography exhibit at UNCA’s Highsmith Gallery is almost like walking into a church — her works turn the venue into a sacred space. Closer observation, however, reveals an impact not unlike that delivered by the paintings of Francis Bacon. Animal forms are splayed and decapitated. There is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
Then, as if the imagery weren’t disturbing enough, Sebrell gets nosy. Printed above the photos of animal images are some probing questions: “Where do you hide your affection?” “Where do you hide your sorrows?”
Sebrell, who calls her show Secrets, believes humans beings default to denial: “For many reasons, including self-protection and self-delusion, we hide things from ourselves and others — the work [in Secrets] poses a series of questions about our hidden history and what we feel we must do to survive.” The artist’s accompanying visual dialogue taps into the paradoxes of modern thought. An element of Surrealist menace exists here, though presented without the violence favored by Bosch or Goya or Picasso. Sebrell does manage to strip away any optimistic illusions; she just does it in a deceptively gentle way.
Made from altered taxidermy mannequins, the forms of Sebrell’s animals are paired down to basic shapes. “Where Do You Hide Your Sorrows?” depicts the head and neck of a big-eyed doe mounted trophy-like on the wall and crowned with a transparent halo. A small, thick, convex photography lens containing the photo of a hand is placed on the center of the mannequin’s elegant, swan-like neck. The piece emits a disturbing serenity, an acceptance of sorrow with no justification.
In “Where Do You Hide Your Fears?” a mannequin that might be used to mount a raccoon is shown spread-eagled, head turned to the side and sewn with big wire stitches. The animal’s body is banded with three hoops; faces stare out from more of the lenses, which are attached to the wires that would be used to hold the dead animal’s tail and anchor its feet to the mounting pedestal.
Sebrell is an impeccable technician. In another work, a mannequin used to mount a fawn totters uncertainly on the wires at the end of its fragile limbs. This is “Where Do You Hide Your Innocence?”
Bacon said that “painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system projected on canvas.” Ditto for the better digital efforts, like Sebrell’s.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer. Her work can be seen next in the Small Works Invitational at Blue Mountain Gallery in New York.]
Alice Sebrell’s Secrets will show at UNCA’s Highsmith University Union Gallery through Friday, July 14. 232-5000.