True Identity at the Dorsch Gallery is a new show comprising 21 works, most of them woodcuts, by local artisan Brian Reedy (a young teacher at Florida International University and the University of Miami). In this exhibit Reedy explores issues of self intensely, to put it mildly. His images parallel the motto of Ars Memorandi, the fifteenth-century book of woodcut prints depicting the four gospels: "Convince and Educate." In medieval aesthetics it's the wondrous that captivates. "If you want to speak with images, choose the most frightful ones," advises the introduction to the 1475 text. That Reedy has done.
The craft here has been resurrected from the past as well: An old forgotten art, woodcuts, carefully drafted in an Expressionist cartoonish vein. Subject: politics of identity. Reedy's art is never sanctimonious. He stabs with carved jest at both monstrosity and religious allegory, summoning a symbiotic discord between man and beast as a vehicle for his soul search. Although some of these images are dreadful, they also can be funny, because Reedy creates them with the right amount of excess. Ridiculous and heavy-handed, his hyperbolic style may appeal to our craving for exaggeration, which in the end only produces more numbness.
Reedy's craft is austere; he achieves the most with the least. His figures are encased in two frames: The outer frame is provided by a sanded steel plate; the other is suggested at the border of the woodcut, generally colored with red acrylic. Sinuous grooves fill the outer space, but closer to the center (and the action) the design becomes more angular. With parsimony of line and grain, thicker black lines reveal quasi-medieval images. And Reedy's effect is potent.
Is true identity possible? The show's title may grant such possibility, or it may dismiss it. When Reedy carves out our man-animal, man-artifact, or man-machine constitutions, he implies that we are not what we think we are. He also implies that our self-deceit is deep-seated. Reedy delivers some mind-benders. Finish First, for instance, is not the typical alchemical image of a snake biting its tail. Instead a half-swallowed human prey bites the snake's appendage while both look at each other in awe. Who eats whom and why?
Reedy's saurian themes make sense in the context of modern man's identity crisis. Discovery shows a lizardlike humanoid taking off his arm only to discover, in apparent amazement, he bears a reptilian claw. If man's work is done with his hands, whatever this hand is doing is spurious. In Amputate Reedy plays with the Christian exhortation, "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off." The woodcut shows a dazed fellow as he gathers strength to saw his own reptilian-scaled arm.
Cold-blooded and predatory, reptiles may be what Reedy thinks we best resemble at the end of this millennium. In Greed, for example, a man eats his own leg as his trunk stands on a four-legged stool. And in Death of the Miser, a horrified victim tries in vain to save his money in hand while being swallowed by a hungry alligator.
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Two other strong images are depicted They Can't Help You Now and Mutilation. In the first, a man screams for help to smiling angel-winged heads. We see his inside: dark lungs in the shape of devil faces, smiling in complicity. Mutilation shows a handless man squirting blood from his open wounds, as both chopped-off hands come back to hunt him. One brandishes a hammer; the other is ready to whack his face. The epitome of self-deceit comes with Honesty, where someone/something in a gorilla suit carries a gorilla mask. Is there a man or a beast underneath it? What is man? What is beast?
The issue of identity becomes more dubious in images such as Vomit, a big-eyed head that spews petroleum from a tower of bones; or Flutter Away, which shows the same head drearily watching his birdcage trunk, filled with birds as they riot to escape (the bird symbolizes the soul).
All but two of the images on display show horrified men in states of self-sedition. That's men, not women. Dirtnap is the only piece featuring a female, but even there the gender focus is blurred by teamwork. In the two-piece woodcut, we witness Reedy's alter ego "wearing" a TV helmet, zapping a winged canine beast. The female heroine does the same trick to a wiry soldier/cyborg equipped with a machine gun. Good or bad, Reedy may feel more at home in the land of male-self, but in a realm where identity is put in brackets, the artist may not be following his own rules of questioning. The graphic images could leave the impression that the take-home message of "True Identity" is pessimistic. It doesn't have to be. After all, with the very act of self-realization comes the possibility of doubting it.
Brian Reedy's "True Identity" is on view through December 18 at the Dorsch Gallery (an apartment-converted gallery on top of Parkway Drugs Plaza), 2157 SW 13th Ave. Gallery hours are 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. every Saturday, and by appointment during the week. Call 305-856-4080 or visit www.dorschgallery.com