There are no people actually singing in CHORUS in Which There Are Many People, Some Singing, Don Harvey's new exhibition at William Busta Gallery.
Painting is an intrinsically visual media, but Harvey, a visiting assistant professor of art at Oberlin College, reminds us what a visual spectacle the singing person can be. In a series of collages built of layered, oil-painted paper, Harvey crafts masks, puppets, and faces contorted in song to create a sort of nightmare opera. A recurring cast of characters belt through bared teeth, as if in anguish or rage.
The spaces they occupy are expansive, yet stifled by the sharp regimentation of repeating grid patterns, a technique Harvey developed at Zygote Press in 2008. A severe palette of black, white, gray, and red dominates the atmosphere, heightening the feelings of restriction and danger.
"Duet" (pictured, detail) presents a pair of childish faces barely recognizable through the white-gray grating that covers them; the only clearly distinguishable features are mouths stretched into distressed ovals. In "Two Actors," a man in a mask and tuxedo covers his open mouth with his hand, his eyes spread wide in panic. A huge Great Dane looms over him in the foreground.
"The relationships stay ambiguous, but I did want to drop some hints of manipulation and control," Harvey said of the narrative his figures inhabit, according to an interview with curator Diane DeGrazia.
The hint becomes a confession in "The Puppeteer," in which a steely-faced woman in unremarkable business attire waves about animated human figures on poles like shadow puppets. This scene is set against one of Harvey's recurring grid patterns — one that resembles a Brutalist apartment complex. Between this recognizable urban design and the corporate attire of his puppetmistress, Harvey's dystopia uncomfortably resembles our own.
With melancholy deftness, the series evokes feelings of alienation and dominance by unseen forces; and in their own way, they are a song of protest against it. The exhibition runs through June 16 at 2731 Prospect Ave. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment; for more information, call 216-298-9071 or go to williambustagallery.com.