Memory and Ritual 

Rodney Wood delves into the disturbing beauty of his alter ego

It is a bit unfair to begin an article about Rodney Wood, the artist, with a reference to his duties as executive director of the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs. That's because Wood's artwork has always been of sufficient quality to justify his discussion in an entirely separate context from the wonderful things he has done at the BAC.

However, one of the salient points about his solo exhibition currently on display is that it represents a sort of coming out for the alter ego pent up inside Wood over the last few years. While he never completely gave up on creating and displaying work, Wood's duties at the BAC seriously curtailed his ability to produce art in sufficient quantities to put on the kind of show he now has at the Fountain Valley School Bedford Gallery.

Paradoxically, virtually the entire body of work in Wood's show has been created in the last six months. While there are examples of Wood's jewelry and a smattering of items produced for other shows, the bulk of the current exhibit falls into two categories.

First, there are a number of solar etchings, made from photographs taken inside one of the historic homes in the area. Based on a concept gleaned from a John Hazlehurst article, these "occult penetralia" pieces feature a slightly built nude model in various poses of despair. The sepia tone of the etchings, together with the attitude of the model and props including an antique wheelchair, give these prints an extraordinarily gothic aspect that induces an uneasy "insane asylum of the '30s" feel. Incidentally, the word penetralia, with its darkly sexual undertones, actually refers to "the innermost or hidden features of a house" according to Wood's artist statement.

In spite of the surface sensuality of these pieces, it is clear that they are about something deeper. Wood characterizes that meaning as one consistent with his title, "Memories." "When you go into an old house like that, you sometimes get a feeling about the things that have happened there in the past," he said. "It's as if you put on a ring from 1000 B.C. and thought about who else had worn that over the years. In a way, they leave something of themselves."

Whatever the viewer feels about the intention of Wood's etchings, it is the unintended effect that seems most remarkable about these prints. "When we were taking these photos," Wood said, "we had to resist the urge to giggle. But when they came back, they were much more powerful than we expected."

There is also a haunting beauty about the pictures that is obviously satisfying to the artist. "The model's mother came to the opening and was looking at these prints of her daughter, and she said that she found them disturbing, but in a way that I didn't anticipate," Wood explained. "She said that one of the most disturbing things about them was how beautiful they were in spite of their darkness."

It is apparent that Wood sees that "disturbing beauty" aspect as an underlying goal for his work, if not a unifying theme. "Anyone can look at a supermodel and see the beauty that is there," he said. "That's easy." Rather, Wood says he sees his work in the same vein as that of artist Joel Peter Witkin's. "His work is very dark," Wood said. "But it is about seeking beauty where you least expect it."

The other major portion of Wood's show centers on an interrelated sculpture collection that Wood characterizes as being about "rituals." "I've always been fascinated with rites of passage," Wood said. "Those things used to be a big deal, but now people see them as just another day. I've heard people say, 'A funeral? I really don't have time.'"

Representative of the sculpture segment of the show is an octagonal sculpture of wood, sand and goat skin titled "Assimilation." This piece includes eight mummy-like figures perched in triangular sand-filled sections. They face out at the viewer from a center post inscribed with mysterious symbols and topped with an ebony box tilted onto one corner. Behind each mummy sits an oddly shaped chunk of richly colored hardwood that can be moved around in the sand. "One of my goals is to make people think and interpret my work," Wood says. "I think art should pose as many or more questions than answers."

Many of the human figures in Wood's sculpture appear to be making the passage from this world to the next rather than from, say, boyhood to manhood. Heads are tilted back and mouths appear open in howls of pain. Nevertheless, Wood hints at a more positive meaning for his work. "I don't think of them as being about death. They are more about a transition," he explained "You cannot be reborn unless something dies, but that has nothing to do with physical death."

This is a show where the emotional and creative importance of the work may outweigh the commercial appeal of the individual pieces, but Wood is clearly comfortable with that. "The thing I don't want to hear is someone looking at my work and saying, 'Oh, that's cute' or 'Gee, that really matches our sofa,'" he said. According to Wood's father, his son is an artistic success in that regard. "We thought we raised a happy child," he was heard to mutter at the April 6 opening.

So, viewer, beware. There is little in this show that will fit nicely on the nursery wall. But if you agree that a principal purpose of modern art is to force a viewer into reassessing some aspect of his or her existence, then don't miss the Rodney Wood solo exhibition.


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