The importance and reality of illusion

October 21, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Jean Genet's play "The Maids" subverts traditional moral values and asserts that more truth lies in appearance than in reality. Evil becomes good, and the mask is more important than the face beneath it. Things, in other words, are not as they seem.

In his show at Galerie Francoise, New York-based artist Rob Wynne uses texts from "The Maids" as part of an installation that makes a similar point: All the human animal aspires to is an illusion.

It's a powerful work, not directly in its visual presentation but in the ideas behind the presentation. In other words, it's a work of conceptual art.

The walls of the gallery are completely covered with Wynne's wallpaper of butterflies on a blue background. On the walls, he has placed framed fabrics, which combine a pattern of bees (the symbol of Napoleon) with texts from the play. All but one are stage directions, such as, "She looks at her wristwatch," and "She wants to hang up but her hand trembles, and she lays the receiver on the table."

The longest quote is the final speech of one of the characters, who has been forced to kill her sister in order to become what Genet thought of as a criminal saint. The text reads in part: "Madame goes up the stairs. She enters her apartment. But Madame is dead. Her two maids are alive. They've just risen up, free, from Madame's icy form." On another wall is a picture of a heart (the actual muscle, not a drawn heart shape) surrounded by the text "Tell me whom you love and I'll tell you who you are."

There's more to the work, but that suffices to make its point. The words of the anarchist Genet subvert the meaning of the Napoleonic bee, symbol of traditional authority, power and state-imposed stability. The words of the speech imply the illusory nature of life, death and freedom as the conventional world perceives them. (Madame is dead but still moves, so the line between life and death has been eliminated. The maids rejoice in their freedom even though the world will chain them to the murder they have committed.) The words around the heart indicate that we allow ourselves to be defined by others. The butterflies covering the walls are usually thought of as symbols of freedom (from the cocoon), but butterflies are also doomed to a life of brevity.

Wynne's work implies that nothing the conventional individual thinks he is and wants to be and holds dear has meaning. It undermines his value systems. But there's a final twist here, an existentialist one. The work undermines value systems to assert that only the individual who is freed from adherence to society's imposed values can invent himself, and in that invention lies freedom.

In the end, the butterflies are indeed a symbol of freedom, because they do invent themselves and thereby exist as an example to the rest of us. What matters, this work says, is not the brevity of life but that it be lived free of conventional moral strictures. It's a point of view with which many will disagree, but it's tellingly argued here.

Rob Wynne

Where: Galerie Francoise et ses freres, Green Spring Station, Falls and Joppa roads

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 5

Call: 410-337-2787

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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