Strands of wiry music, barbed with emotional truth, seemed to unspool through the air, winding around Terry Durst's weathered-looking assemblage works, at the opening of his show The Carter Excavations. A scratchy late 1920s recording featured highlights from the repertoire of country music's "first family," the Carters: Alvin, Sara and Maybelle. As Durst made the works in the show, songs like "The Poor Orphan Child" and lighter, winsome classics like "Chewing Gum" kept him company as he puzzled together layers of paint and wallpaper, fabric and furring strips, making hybrid objects that are neither literal reminiscence nor simple abstraction but a gritty mix of material and character, dancing to the background noise of memory.
Durst has always kept things real, producing psychologically powerful paintings and sculptures that explore shifting formal and thematic concerns. Since his 1987 graduation from Kent State University, his strong sense of personal integrity and commitment to social issues has found expression in materials ranging from modular plastic forms to whole, home-baked cakes; even Fruitloops (he used the cereal in one show to create colorful, crunchy portraits of political figures on a gallery floor) have found a place in his sometimes tongue-in-cheek visual/conceptual vocabulary.
The current exhibit returns to what are probably Durst's most recognizable and most private preoccupations, using fragments pried loose from the slow erosion of domestic life to measure ratios of beauty and injury. Occasionally — with "Horseshoe Man," for instance, which uses a Mr. Peanut figurine dug up in his backyard — the results are downright haunted, as if he were building way stations for ghosts.
Several others incorporate pieces of old walls and floors, painstakingly rebuilt and repainted to look even older and more beat-up than they are. "Blue Sky," which spells out its title in flowing vintage cursive, is an unusually specific memory piece, conjuring up Durst's childhood recollection of the Blue Sky Drive-in Theater in Wadsworth, where he grew up. Part of the piece's blue layering is kitchen linoleum, saved from a house where he later lived on Cleveland's West Side.
But most of Durst's excavations dig into the allusive structures of the unconscious mind, where a swath of linen or a well-placed crease or stain can evoke a lifetime of intimacy or the pain of long deprivation. Some are even a bit like imaginary friends. The Carters are all represented: "Alvin" sports a small hole that looks like it could have been made by a bullet, while "Sara" has a decorative, antimacassar-like fussiness, and the partly obscured pattern of circles in "Maybelle" scoots along like a capo up the neck of a guitar.
Sara sings, "Are you tired of me, my darling? Answer only with your eyes." In his new work, Durst finds silent ways to sing about life's long, hopeful sadness.