Shock treatment

Syprian Harvey’s Web site — you’ll find a link for it at www.ashevilleart.net — is not a place for the faint of heart.

The site opens with an old photograph of Appalachian Hall, referred to as Asheville Asylum. It may be clear to an Asheville resident that the asylum and attendant story are fictions — but for the collectors from around the globe who’ve purchased art work from Harvey’s site, the asylum and its artist inmates could be quite real.

Which, of course, helps them to be real.

Harvey lives and works in a charming building on Elk Mountain Road, near the town of Woodfin. The artist grew up in New Jersey, became a teacher of Humanities, then spent 12 years in Germany and in Singapore teaching English.

Today, he holds forth like a Biblical scholar — when he’s not musing like a Jungian psychologist or speculating like a Nietzschian philosopher.

His career as an artist began, he says, when he “woke up one morning in 1987″ and decided he was an artist.

“I went out, bought a torch and started to weld,” he remembers.

On a return visit to Germany one summer, he collaborated with a friend building metal furniture. The 50-odd chairs made that summer were sold to a Berlin pub — and some of the most outstanding work in Harvey’s current exhibit, Asheville Asylum, is likewise functional. These chairs are stylized, but surprisingly comfortable: For Harvey, they’re all about hierarchy and position. They must, he insists, reflect the personality and the status of the person for whom they are made.

The stories, poems, images, and characters present on the Web site, says Harvey, grew out of his frustration with the Asheville art scene’s reluctance to welcome the work of the fringe artist — the outsider. He claims every character is based on someone he has encountered in Asheville — but he leaves it to the reader/viewer to decide who’s who.

His protagonist is called Dmoll415, an inmate who works in the Asylum kitchen and makes the paintings and the sculpture. Other characters are doctors, nurses and fellow inmates. “Nancy,” in a painting titled “After the Fire,” is typical: We see the structure of a formal portrait of a woman who has just been through a tragedy. But the wild, expressive brushwork and the text printed in a block at the edge of the work move it away from any ordinary genre.

Painted on newspaper, the portraits exude a raw, art brut quality, passionate and often violent. (In 2000, Harvey was clearing a basement when he came across 50 bundles of newspapers dated 1942 through 1944. The bundles were small, folded neatly and each carefully wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. He decided that these documents of Asheville’s history would form a perfect base for his own history of Asheville — namely, the people he has met here.)

Harvey makes his paintings during the winter, when it’s too cold to be outside welding his sculptures and his metal-encrusted wall pieces. He combines the two media when paintings don’t sell right away, creating small, metal sarcophagi, tearing and burning the paintings, and encasing the remains inside the boxes.

The metal wall pieces in the current exhibit are collectively titled Justice. In “Justice: Eve” Harvey reinterprets the title character as something close to a social activist: “She knew what she was doing,” he says. “She knew things needed to change, and she ate the apple.”

“Pocket prayers” — which can be worn or hung on the wall — join the paintings, sculpture and chairs in the pristine gallery space in Harvey’s home.

In his online “Introduction to the Asheville Asylum,” Dmoll415 states: “The body politic is public: there is no private life. And that’s the asylum: it will alter as I receive other patients in this city, because they’re all crazy.”

Let’s hope no one cures them anytime soon.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]


Asheville Asylum shows for one more day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 21, at Syprian Harvey’s home studio, 115 Gallery (115 Elk Mountain Road, in Woodfin — take 19/23 N to the Elk Mountain Road exit). Call 253-2053 for more information.

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