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Sweet dreams

Children's fairy tales, fables fuel two art exhibitions

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Is it any wonder that in times of political instability we are even more desperate for the escapism of the Yellow Brick Road and the Narnia fantasy of talking beavers?

Considering the age we live in, who wouldn't want to retreat into childhood rituals and the calming enchantment of stories whose outcome we know?

"This Farm Life" by Marcus Kenney at Marcia Wood Gallery - MARCIA WOOD GALLERY

Two Atlanta exhibitions examine the enduring appeal of childhood fables, especially in these dire, grown-up times. The group show Once Upon a Time ... at Aliya Linstrum Gallery, and Savannah artist Marcus Kenney's solo show Happily Ever After ... at Marcia Wood Gallery have fairy tales on the brain, and use the form for both succor and critique.

The voyage away from reality that storytelling offers us is central to Aliya Linstrum's charming, suitably seasonal musing on the fairy tale, Once Upon a Time ... . The group show's artists share a clear interest in the kind of storybook journeys that define the genre and signal travels into our subconscious, into our fears and pleasures.

Literary journeys pop up in Pamela Murphy's canvases, dominated by quaintly dressed '50s children who gaze down rabbit holes a la Alice, or sport vivid ruby shoes, the better to click their heels to Oz.

Many of these Once Upon a Time ... artists illustrate the power of fairy tales not only to transport us, but to allow a more psychological kind of roaming, such as the physical transformations depicted by Margee Brig, whose blue birds are elegantly dressed and her foxes stand upright.

Anthropomorphized creatures are everywhere in Once Upon a Time ..., including Martha Paulson's lovely little vignette "Parents." The small, atmospherically candlelit painting features a "mixed-species" couple holding a baby. The father is a bear and the mother an ambiguously humanoid creature, in keeping with the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" notion that the ursine are as capable as parents as the human.

The works at Aliya Linstrum are almost all appropriately jewel-box tiny, the better to re-create the book page and get viewers into the intimate head space of their transportive stories. The puniness of figures, like the one hunched against the wind in Gerard Erley's "Windy Day," replicates the sense of being a dreamer pulled this way and that on an arduous journey. Difficult tasks and passages, as Odysseus to Frodo Baggins have shown us, are the bread and butter of our narrative dream life.

Many of the ambiguously narrative, animal-populated canvases look like storybook illustrations, but others take the dimensions of the fairy tale and invest it with more individualized meaning.

David Ivie's diminutive canvases, for instance, suggest fables of homosexuality. In them, tiny naked men skulk through lush forests, unable to enter the bramble-enshrouded mansions that might shelter them. Like fairy tales, the works combine the kid-friendly preciousness of a miniature form with the adult sense of dis-ease and fear that so many stories treat in subtext.

"The Messengers" by Margee Bright Ragland at Aliya Linstrum Gallery. - ALIYA LINSTRUM GALLERY

Savannah College of Art and Design graduate Marcus Kenney also references storybook tales in his exhibition Happily Ever After ..., which is anything but.

Rather than propping up nursery-land fictions, Kenney, a perversely counter-intuitive father of three, pulls the rug out from beneath their notions of blissful closure. Instead, Kenney dares to imagine apocalypse as our communal future.

In works that combine the "kreepy kiddie" aura of pedo-centric folk artist Henry Darger and the soothing innocence of Little Golden Books, Kenney takes the material of storybooks and childhood fantasy as his literal media. A devotee of Dumpster-dived inspiration, Kenney uses a stew of cultural imagery -- children's storybooks and coloring books, paint-by-numbers and vintage wallpaper -- cuts them out and pastes them into collaged tapestries of Futureshock.

Kenney privileges the darker strains of fairy tales and tosses their soothing nectar out the window. In his exquisitely ornate works, there is no promise of struggling through adversity to reach the sweet pie of contentment in the end. Many of Kenney's works suggest that the biggest story has already happened, and that we are now sorting through the aftermath.

His "Junk Yard (Prelude)" is a post-apocalyptic, Left Behind vision of innocence-in-trouble that no puddle ducks or talking calves are apt to fix. Beneath some sulfurous skies, a decimated landscape is strewn with trash: stoves, cars and toys. A little boy looks up to the heavens for answers like a kid waiting for a glimpse of Santy Claus. Kenney's touché? If you look closely, the piss sky is composed of canceled checks, a fairly neat trash-text metaphor for time running out.

Old-timey Southern Pentecostal "I told you so's" circulate in Happily Ever After ... in works like "Lost in the Word, Pt. II," in which Kenney has incorporated snippets of a sermon he found in an alleyway with his frighteningly reconstituted children made of pasted-together body parts.

In addition to his collages, Kenney features papier-mâché sculptures of the monkeys and farmers who appear in his canvases. The purposefully amateurish sculptures incorporate wacky materials such as cigarettes, soda tops and twist ties, and suggest some back roads Southern folk environment or homemade tourist site. Like his other work, the figures have the flavor of mom-and-pop, death-tripping prophesy. Hansel and Gretel better watch their backs.

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