Arts » Feature

Dead Men Grinning

One-man show is unnerving yet also exhilarating

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Welcome to the McColl Center for Visual Art. When you enter through the beautiful front doors of this former church, you will be greeted by curious eyes. The man to the left sits in a straight black deacon's chair. He looks at you, and through you, sideways, from the corner of his eyes — stern eyes under a knitted brow. He wears a black suit and a tight brown shirt buttoned to the throat. Both hands rest on the arms of his chair, his fingers thrum in a sign of contained impatience. As you watch him, his eyes slide away from you, back into the gallery. He's lost interest in you. Sitting across from this guy, to your right, is a boney, ball-jointed, yellow-toothed man in red buster brown shoes. He merely stares.

With her smile, the young woman behind the desk says, "Welcome to the McColl Center." Indeed.

Welcome to Puppets, Ghosts and Zombies: The Sculpture of Pat Keck, artist Keck's world of the willful undead awaiting your arrival. Keck's lively wooden friends are visiting Charlotte, working as greeters at the McColl Center, through June 11. Don't keep them waiting.

Behind Heather, the flesh and blood receptionist, sits the "Seated Giantess." She is eight feet tall sitting down. She wears a fitted spandex blouse, so tight it appears painted on. Oh, it is painted on. Her joints — ankles, fingers, elbows, shoulders — are all pinned tendons, like the mechanical limbs on puppets. Her hair is the business end of a mop and her aqua eyes are the size of ripe plums. She wears sensible black pumps the size of microwave ovens. She's a big girl, clumsy and uncuddly.

On the wall next to the Giantess is a photo of the artist, Pat Keck, sitting in the Giantess' chair, dressed and coifed like one of her harlequin creatures. She rests one elbow over the crown of her Giantess' dismembered head. Is she a creation of her own creature? Who's boss here?

As if to answer that question, in another photo, Keck stands at the door to her studio and wields a chainsaw over her head. At her feet, body parts litter the floor, and a couple of unfinished wooden friends, one headless, sit in small chairs in front of her. Keck laughs the laugh of young Dr. Frankenstein. This is her world; enter cautiously. And bring quarters.

"Deposit a quarter and wait for your answer." These are the final instructions from the "Answer Man," a carnival fortune teller who can answer any and all Yes or No questions. The Answer Man is a conservatively dressed clown with a yellow dunce cap and tasseled cape. He stands behind a gay geometry of primary colors painted on a waist high podium, and stares down at a counter bell between his hands. I put my quarter in his slot and ask, "Will I get this art review in on time?" It's a loaded question — both I and my grumpy editor know the answer to that one.

When my quarter drops, the painted black and white wheel behind the clown spins yes/no/yes/no/yes, round and round. The clown lifts his head to look me in the eye, which I don't like. He stares, I stare, we both wait. Without looking down, he slowly lifts one hand and gently touches the bell in front of him and the wheel behind him slows and stops. The arrow at the top of the wheel and the tip of his cone head point to "NO." Son-of-a-Bitch! How did he know? He lowers his perfect lean white face and stares at his little bell.

"Man With Time Running Out," a guy the size of an adult baboon, sits behind walls of glass and stares at sand running through an hourglass perched on the table in front of him. His hands and face are white. He sports the Andy Warhol hair and stare — spiked white pageboy cut and riveted, lidless eyes. He wears all black and waits. I wait with him. We both stare at his runty hourglass. He is comfortably intense and patient and very still. I flinch and can wait no longer for the sand to run out. I'll be back.

There's an androgynous, glam rock, mock-desolate presence to most of these pieces. Keck delights in the theatrical alchemy possible in an elegant presentation of the absurd. Her portentous presentation of big issues — isolation, individual control, death and the repetitive banality of life — is both funny and disturbing, vexing and invigorating. She reduces the profound to bite sized, palatable pieces which go down easier with a dose of glamour and spoonful of humor.

"Messages" will also cost you a quarter. Four men in suits sit behind a long desk with telegraph keys in front of them. Each man is the size of an oversized lap dog and each is too bored to make eye contact with you.

When I drop my quarter, the man with the tiger stripe shoes leans forward as two others turn their heads and eye him suspiciously. Tiger Shoes lifts his finger to the telegraph key and taps out a message to me. He finishes, removes his hand and leans back in his chair. My fortune cookie-sized message tab floats to the concrete floor:

"When the man count to ten, you got to run." I look behind me and neither the cone head clown or dead man on the crypt say a word.

The interactive instructions for "Messages" tells me I can deposit one, two, three or four quarters. It says I "will be told when to stop inserting coins," but I stop after two without being told — I'm on a short expense account here.

The man on the right leans forward and taps out a long Morse code message to me. He's the scariest looking of the four — dressed all in black, with thick brows perched over his bored white face. When he finishes tapping out my message, he leans back and crosses his arms across his chest and looks past me. His message also floats to the floor:

"You need not sit looking longingly at the bait through the wires of the trap: the door is open, and will remain so until it shuts behind you forever."

Is it getting chilly in here?

Keck delivers the same giddy, fevered jolt you may experience in slightly dangerous circumstances — like visiting the forbidden scrubby carnival as a kid and admiring the patently glamorous freaks, or walking city streets and coming upon a silent figure standing stock still — and harmless — around a dark corner.

Keck's creatures both repel and woo us, they murmur "Come hither" and bark "Too close!" Through early summer, the McColl Center hosts this community of beautifully polished, deviant and alluring players who look a lot like us. This artist reminds us Life is a Stage — and not necessarily a mid-life one.

Come play.

The exhibit Puppets, Ghosts and Zombies: The Sculpture of Pat Keck will be on display through June 11 at the McColl Center for Visual Art, 721 N. Tryon St. Details: 704-332-5535.

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