The Joanna Rocks the House, and More Gallery-hopping

Dancing with the theremins. At right, Stephen Kraig recalibrates the soundgate.
Dancing with the theremins. At right, Stephen Kraig recalibrates the soundgate.
Hank Hancock

Friday night we ended up at The Joanna for a noisy, immersive experience that had been anticipated for a couple of weeks, after a successful outdoor preview at the Free Press Summerfest. This time around, the artist collective Exurb brought their electromagnetic fields, "soundgates," speakers, video cameras, projectors and computers indoors, and the entire house fairly buzzed and flickered, which made for an impressive spectacle from outside, as the sun set and the humid night settled in.

Inside, it was another matter. Electrical engineer Stephen Kraig had erected not one but two electrical arbors, each rigged up with six independent theremins wired to as many metal plates. It seems that in this setting, unanticipated conduction or capacitance or frequency modulation (you'd have to ask the engineer) knocked the highly sensitive theremins out of any possible calibration.

The whole house squawked and screamed. The metal plates lining the soundgates, rather than responding to bodies passing through, were activated instead by a rather more aggressive engagement, like waving hands at them, or tapping. Instead of making any sort of pitch or tone, they emitted buzzing and whistling noises. We found that about half the plates apparently wouldn't respond at all. The experience felt a lot like difficult sound-check, the implied question being, "Is this thing on?"

They were still building out the show as it was scheduled to begin, and Kraig continued working at the dials, rheostats, and variable capacitors (again, you'd have to ask him) throughout the evening. Still, he considered it a success, given the eager responses of those who attended, who experimented with the structures, explored the house, and tried their hands - and heads and asses - at making sound and light with these unconventional instruments.

The video component of the exhibit, responding to auditory input from the soundgates flickered and crawled across their screens, positioned in several rooms throughout the Joanna house.

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From outside, the windows flickered, and the house seemed alive, bellowing, like the Poltergeist house just before it implodes. Outside is where most of us gathered, even though the mosquitoes were coming up, because we were more than the house could fit, and stepping inside was like entering a sauna, with all the heat put off by the electronics. Whatever else The Joanna does, they can throw a fine party.

Before The Joanna, we first stopped in at a rather more traditional show of paintings at the East End Studio Gallery, M.H. Draper's "The Subconscious Edge." The show included three or four styles of paintings that seem so incommensurate that it was surprising to think they could have come from a single artist. Draper explains that he adopts his wildly varying techniques and approaches depending on the different sorts of psychic conditions that he is experiencing.

These include abstract, round machine-objects with precisely applied colors and clear lines; ominous landscapes peopled with blurred human silhouettes and layered with smears and scraped paint; and eyeless purple and black mysteries. The various human figures range from the naively rendered, to the precisely imagined and fully dimensional, and then to the obscure and ominous forms suggested, but not defined, in thickly layered color. "Existential Beach" is an example of this last style and was one of the most arresting pieces in the show.

Another treat, again difficult to reconcile with the rest, was a modest painting in six parts, in which Benjamin Franklin's political cartoon of the cut-apart rattler representing the divided colonies, under the caption "JOIN, or DIE," is portioned out and isolated, one piece of the snake per panel. Franklin's image predates the Gadsden flag - lately adopted by the Tea Party - by 20 years or more. While this rendition - in metallic silver on a cobalt field - might seem to engage the current political moment, the artist explains its origins in terms rather more personally symbolic.

We were pleased to discover that Draper is also sometimes a graphic designer, having created the increasingly familiar logos for Southern Star Brewing Company, notably for Bombshell Blonde. One reason we were pleased is that Southern Star's owner and brewmaster Dave Fougeron, a friend of Draper's for 20 years, was there at the gallery to share his brews with gallery visitors.

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