When I wrote Weld’s cover story on the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Norman Rockwell exhibit, I noted that one of the reasons for Rockwell’s enduring popularity is the fact that he tells a story in each of his images. As inviting as they are, Rockwell’s illustrations are essentially removed from the audience, self-contained stories provided for their consumption, entertainment, and emotional reaction.
It’s safe to say that the two exhibits currently on display at the beta pictoris art gallery, DRIFT and Unexpected Protocol, are about as far away from Rockwell’s simplicity of message as you can get.
Unlike a traditional gallery, in which paintings are hung in isolation and aloof to the viewer, the works in DRIFT and Unexpected Protocol invite you into a dialogue. Because there’s no set narrative—or rather, because you’re taking part in a continuous narrative—you have to add your own meaning, your own story. Instead of the aristocratic noblesse oblige of the classic museum, this is a democratic, challenging experience.
Unexpected Protocol, the exhibit in the front room, consists of a number of pieces that show how people try and encapsulate their lives, dividing up their experiences into understandable segments. The most striking works of St. Louis area artist Mario Trejo are reductions from panels, in which he scratches, with great emotion and obsessive detail, a little gray cosmos out of a black painting. Former Montevallo professor Deborah Karpman does the same with collages made out of old field guides, textbooks, and furniture catalogues, capturing the ephemeral in something deliberate.
DRIFT, meanwhile, is an even more challenging show. The idea of horizontality in art means pushing the definitions of what painting is out of static categories and into, well, new and eddying horizons. Can you paint with rubber? Can you paint with light? Can a painting be three-dimensional? DRIFT forces you to consider not only the meaning of painting itself, but also the materials used, because the art is presented on such an immediately personal level.
Even if you’ve got a strong background in art, it can be a challenge to look at a black table or a silver-lined stool and appreciate them on their own merits. But it’s the very difficulty of the exhibit that makes it so important; it opens your mind, without getting too abrasive, to the possibilities modern art can drift between. And as brainy and abstract as that sounds, DRIFT and Unexpected Protocol still have moments of overwhelming beauty and passion.
The beta pictoris gallery, run by Guido Maus, is located at 2411 Second Avenue North. DRIFT and Unexpected Protocol will show for free through December 28. The gallery’s hours are Wednesday-Friday from 1-4 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information, call (205) 413-2999.