Waiting to be kissed 

Pink wonderland

Julianna Thibodeaux Paul Harr

Pink wonderland

Julianna Thibodeaux Paul Harris and Michael Begley: Different Dreams, Different Promises Ruschman Gallery Through Nov. 26
'Flight' by Paul Harris, part of 'Different Dreams, Different Promises' at Ruschman.
Pulling up to Ruschman Gallery on Alabama Street, I was startled by a sea of pink windows. My first thought was that the gallery was closed and Ruschman had pink window shades. Nice touch. The only other detail was an emptied Smirnoff vodka drink sitting on the outside window ledge (no surprise here; there's a liquor store across the street). My mind forwarded to the revelry that must have gone on at the opening last weekend - and I thought of the artists, Paul Harris and Michael Begley, and then - wham - it hit me. Of course the windows are covered in pink! Harris and Begley, an iconoclastic duo - but independently eccentric and each with a distinct and well-defined voice - have been making art and decorating spaces wildly in this town for as long as I can remember, which is to say, about 20 years. To understand Harris and Begley in a larger context is to recognize the blurred distinction between decoration and fine art. You could even say these two more than participated in it; they presaged it. Now, of course, it's common and accepted. Harris and Begley's Different Dreams, Different Promises is classic Paul Harris, classic Michael Begley - and as such a classic melding of sacred and profane, and a lovely complement of two artists' unique sensibilities. There's the pink paper outside, but step in the gallery and you're in another world. A pink, black, gold and dusty-photograph world. And what would a Paul Harris creation be without gardenias? The floors were strewn with them; now dried, the remaining leaves crunched under my feet. Fall had taken up indoors. This, of course, is an apt metaphor for the introspectiveness of this show, the blurring of boundaries. Begley and Harris are ever thoughtful, ever aware, even melancholy, but with a humorous edge ("Lambs Waiting to be Slaughtered," "Old Maid," "My First Wife Was a Woman" and "Security is a Caged Bird"). The pink-papered windows were extended to pink-painted walls, these adorned with stenciled swirls of vining leaves in a sweeping pattern. Harris' trademark manipulated vintage baby dolls, darkly transformed, perched on pink pedestals (sprouting branches from beneath); above them hung Begley's delicate, gold-leafed paper collages with antique wallpaper and occasional snippets of vintage photographs, alongside Harris' own two-dimensional offerings, vintage photographs colored in black. A glass-case centerpiece (not attributed to either artist) with the name plate "Reliquary of Castiglione" displays a wax female bust, the woman sporting a plume of feathers and sprouting mesh wings strewn with dried flowers and holding an "oculus" made of a small metal picture frame. It's the island of lost toys meets Dr. Seuss - or the Museum of Lost Childhood. Dark, light, almost creepy - and curiously tender. At once an installation and a show of individual works, the pieces range in tone from small and macabre to light and airy. Harris' "Waiting to be Kissed" is the former, and perhaps one of the most morbid: A baby doll's head (with "5" on its forehead) is attached to a prone skeleton, turned over and painted black, all encased in glass. On the other end of the light spectrum, there's Begley's ethereal "Heaven and Earth," a simple and lovely silhouette image of a girl with long, streaming braids, jump rope swung high, its arc holding a bird in flight. Somehow, the snake coiled below is not a menace; rather, it's a symbol - innocence to be lost, inevitably. In some hands, the broken-baby-doll, found-object sculpture has become cliché, but not with Harris. He discovers ever-darker, ever-insightful variations on this long-used theme. And Begley, a master of the delicate, decorative and lovely, takes us into richer places of contemplation using decorative techniques that also, in the hands of some, can end up more decoration than art. But no - this is all art; top to bottom, wall to wall. Different Dreams, Different Promises, a gallery installation by Paul Harris and Michael Begley, is at Ruschman Gallery, 948 N. Alabama St., through Nov. 26. Call 317-634-3114 or go to www.ruschmangallery.com.

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