A Day at the Opera
Opera-Themed Artworks Are Worth a Standing Ovation
By Doug MacCash, NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE
I know you’re busy. You’ve got a ton of stuff to do at work, it’s your week to drive car pool, Sissy’s volleyball tournament begins tonight, you’ve got to pick up a king cake for the office party and you’re almost out of gas. But you can’t be any busier than Stephen Paul Day has been over the past two years.
It’s hard to imagine that there were enough hours in the day to have completed the 50 highly detailed, finely crafted works in his new exhibit “Burning the Red Sea” at Arthur Roger Gallery. If you can squeeze one more thing into your February schedule, this is a show definitely worth seeing.
All of the works are based on the plots and characters of classical operas. Day, who splits his time between New Orleans and Germany, took the title of the exhibit from a scene in “La Bohème” in which the characters burn an artist’s paintings to stay warm. But if you don’t know much about opera, don’t worry. I don’t and I loved the show anyway. The truth is, the art doesn’t relate to live opera but to opera memorabilia. It’s as if your old maiden aunt died and you discovered a chest full of vintage programs, ticket stubs, pressed flowers and gowns. You don’t need to know the lyrics to “Carmen” in order to appreciate your aunt’s secret passion.
Day translates that sense of faded, unrequited passion into a myriad of forms. On the back wall is a Xeroxed mural of a 19th-century opera crowd. In the corner is an opera gown on a motorized base, turning ’round and ’round. On the wall hangs an antique accordion and a set of antique marionettes. In a beautiful glass case he bronze daggers dedicated to Salome, Tosca, Gilda, etc. In another case are books with lighted shadowboxes imbedded in their covers. In still another case are programs with magnifying glasses placed over them. Over all Day has created a mock history museum, a trove of objects from some nonspecific moment in the past: fascinating, inscrutable and precious.
Preciousness is Day’s forte. Though he uses every kind of media — from welded iron to cast bronze, found objects as varied as a human hair and a television set, hidden motors and mechanical music boxes — his main medium is cast glass. And nothing is as precious as glass. But unlike many glass artists who try to impose muscularity and grittiness on the medium, Day embraces the prettiness and fragility. The finely carved, cast glass busts exude brittle vulnerability. The tiny, crystal-clear feet you find here and there in the exhibit silently beg to be handled with care. The tiny brown glass chess pieces in “Casio”s Chocolate Box” look like they could just melt away.
Day’s meticulous craftsman ship and nostalgic vision are so consistent throughout the show that it’s hard to pick favorite pieces. But here are a couple that appealed to me.
“Madame Butterfly: Little Trouble,” a wooden curio case that contains a butterfly collection, silk slippers and a real juniper bonsai, is wonderful. “Mimi, Little Sparrow,” a blood red cast glass bust with glass birds submerged in the back of the figure’s head, is also terrific.
But best of all is “Wagner”s Chippendale,” a display case with two clear cameos (one with a Prince Valiant scene, the other with a trio of rococo nymphs) and a cast glass bust of a child. The thing that makes it so great is that all the glass is a weird fluorescent chartreuse color, which glows eerily in the light from a miniature black light bulb.
There’s one problem with this excellent show, though. “Burning the Red Sea” is too much of a good thing. It’s like a great novel that’s 200 pages too long. Or an exquisite meal that leaves you stuffed. After several minutes of strolling from piece to piece, you can’t concentrate and it all becomes a little blurry. Still, it’s a very pleasant blur.
There are two othier artists in two smaller rooms of Arthur Roger Gallery, and their work harmonizes beautifully with Day’s.
Georgian David Ivie’s charming, pale, monochromatic watercolors depict scenes from the border of Wuthering Heights and Roswell, New Mexico. The hero, in a blousey Errol Flynn shirt, searches the moors at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost of his lost lover who is rumored to wander in the light of the full moon, when he suddenly sees an unnatural glow in the forest. As he investigates, he is seized by an invisible force field and held captive. That”s the sort of narrative that goes through your mind as you look at these amusingly creepy little paintings. Ivie’s theatricality jibes perfectly with Day’s opera fetish.
And in the back room, which has been painted entirely midnight blue, you’ll find a strangely comical sculptural installation by Connecticut artist Robert Taplin, titled “The Five Outer Planets.”
Taplin envisions these remote celestial bodies as pairs of (sometimes aroused) fat men tumbling through space (suspended from wires) or dancing on a galactic stage (a large semi-circular pedestal). In each pair, one of the men is cast in plaster, the other as a rice paper shell which is lit from within and glows like a Japanese lantern. Like Day’s work, Taplin’s odd little men are beautifully crafted, and there’s a museum-like quality to the presentation.
It’s a small exhibit in perfect sync with the other two. A hat trick for Arthur Roger Gallery.