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Gambit Weekly Peripheral Vision, Parallel Worlds

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JANUARY 26, 1998:  Once upon a time, long before the rise of science and technology as we know them, everything in the world was thought to be alive. Not just the birds, bees and trees, but also the rocks, mountains and deserts; all were perceived as expressions of the nature spirits. But that was when all things were regarded as part of the life force of the planet unless proven otherwise.

Now, of course, we simply assume that everything is dead, or at least inert, until proven otherwise. Such is the position of 20th century science. Even so, not everyone is convinced. Native Americans were, and sometimes still are, great believers in the spirits -- the anima that enliven, or animate, the natural world. So too are voodooists, as well as the other shamanists who routinely solicit the spirits on behalf of public safety, protection from floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, or what have you. But in contemporary industrial societies, it is mostly a small minority of artists, poets, madmen and spiritualists that sees things this way.

And then there are the fellow travelers, artists like David Ivie, an Atlanta painter whose colorful little canvases appear to be seething with animist energies of all sorts. Even so, Ivie is no voodooist, shamanist or conjurer in the usual sense. No, his world is mostly urbane and civilized, and if animist energies are in evidence, they are reflections of modern society's shadowy side rather than any ordinary aberrations of nature.

Lights on Solids is case in point, a nocturnal streetscape of intimate, almost European proportions. Dreamy and surreal, it depicts a guy walking with his hands in his pockets through pools of light from the street lamps that dot a block of old buildings. Another guy casts long shadows in the archway of a French Quarter-style structure as wispy clouds above smudge the twilight sky. Steam billows from unseen portals as architectural statues appear frozen in voyeuristic poses, and the whole thing radiates a creepy somnambulistic vibe, like those zoned-out piazzas that DiChirico once painted -- dense, vacant vistas charged with the atmospheric suspense of inexplicable dreams.

Not that Ivie is any DiChirico -- no one is, or could be. But Ivie does have a way with that intimate, twilight zone dream scene syndrome. Only in his case, it is all rather postmodern and gothic as we see in Penthouse, a cityscape with a view. Set among the rooftops of an old yet modern city, the piece evokes parts of Paris or Milan, places where gothic highrises share the skies with office towers under construction and baroque gold domes topped with statuary. But the central focus is an all-glass penthouse apartment in which a nude couple stands staring (presumably deeply and with passion) into each other's eyes.

Ivie's Lights on Solids displays his modern interpretation of the ancient shamanistic tradition
The fluid lines of their bodies bask in the balmy afternoon glow of sunshine and hormones, and suddenly it is all there once again: the nature spirits cavorting among the angular skyline of the city. Dense, serpentine clouds set the tone as they soot up the sunset like squid slithering along sandy Caribbean shallows. It is a truly animist sky, dense with vapor and intrigue, the kind of sky that caused raised eyebrows back in Van Gogh's day but which now seems archly romantic if not anachronistic.

Ivie deftly dodges such retro innuendo, however, with a pointedly film noir resonance, a sense of lurking darkness, as if Tony Perkins or Bette Davis were skulking just around the corner. Quite small and loosely if expressively painted, Ivie's canvases evoke a late 20th century brand of animism.

Nature spirits of a more traditional variety inhabit the charged, shadowy spaces of Debbie Fleming Caffery's landscapes. Photographed in South Louisiana and Mexico, Caffery's images are unusually ambient and atmospheric, like subjective sequences of peripheral vision, fragmented dreams of jungles and serpents, of swarthy natives and strange rituals lost in the ruins of ancient empires. Actually, Caffery explores anachronisms common to both Louisiana and Mexico, practices like cockfighting, outlawed in most of America yet still found in places where medievalism and tribalism coalesce. Louisiana and Mexico share parallel legacies of cruel and unusual beauty.

But this is no docudrama; the tone is entirely subjective and poetic, as we see in apocalyptic images of charred infernal cane fields and dead alligators in repose, maskers on horseback and torchlit processions. Or dusky little Chicanas outfitted as angels. In lands where nature and tradition are still strong, the spirits of place remain vital. Caffery's photographs suggest the visionary prophecies of the spirit oracles, signs and omens in a universal, if long forgotten, language.

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