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Stitches in Time 

What is it about old things, anyway? The patina of age seems especially desirable these days as popular TV shows extol the virtues of antique collecting to a nation that always celebrated modernity. Newer was always better, but now it's in with the old and out with the new, at least as far as some folks are concerned. Even so, not all old things possess the same cachet.

While desirable blue-chip antiquities are prized by dealers and collectors, other, no less aged, if perhaps homelier or less perfect items tend to be passed over, disregarded by all. All, that is, but the occasional artist. Because artists see possibilities, or even poetry, where others see rubbish, and in this city such orphaned objects have inspired no end of creative ferment.

Matjames (as he prefers to be known) is a case in point. As a maker of surreal shadow boxes, art furniture and mystery objects, he functions as a kind of poet of the trash pile, sifting through derelict odds and ends to find exactly the right piece that defines the puzzle. Although his work has been seen in various alternative venues about town, his Wunderkammers show at Barrister's Gallery is perhaps his most self-explicatory expo to date, although you still may have to dig a bit to fully appreciate what he's up to.

True to the title, the work is rather chamber-like. There is also something oddly exploratory about his efforts, as if he were searching out hitherto unknown links between the pop culture of the past and the organic processes of nature. For instance, Iceman is a box that could almost be a weathered wall of an old building. Within the confines of its ornate wooden filigree are an assortment of antique objects: elegant old foreign stamps, a darkly tarnished cameo in leaded glass, mysterious metal machine parts, antique nails and the dust of the ages. In a compartment below, the wicked long knife of a long-dead iceman hints at perfunctory mayhem.

What is it about these things? Do objects take on the aura of former owners? Do lost items assume a secret life of their own? Not all of these works are equally strong, but the best hark to the eerie pathos of the past, the nostalgia of things once imbued with pride, love and beauty, now faded and tarnished over time. This is especially evident in some of his older and larger pieces such as The Prettiest Girl in the World, ostensibly a chair, but actually a reliquary of antique puzzle pieces and clock parts, dismembered yardsticks, lost watch straps, metallic mystery objects and photos of bygone ingenues such as the one in the detail shot, above.

Not part of the show itself, but off amid the gallery clutter is his magnum opus, The Phantom Toolbooth, a mad junk collector's equivalent of the Tower of Babel. Insanely detailed and intricately engineered from his usual arsenal of wooden architectural elements, iconic objects and nostalgic fetishes, it's an architectural wonder in its own right, filled with secret doors, hidden compartments, mirrors revealing concealed messages -- even the artist's signature, if viewed from exactly the right angle. A uniquely inspired totem from a promising emerging artist.

Related in form, though more gothic in tone, are John Greco's Architectural Autopsies in the adjacent space at Barrister's. Greco has a gift for the grim, and the assemblages in this show read like a grimoire of elegant grotesqueries, or perhaps long lost science projects that went awry. Certainly, his poetically inscribed pig fetuses in formaldehyde have that look about them. But his boxes are like meticulously crafted metal compartments containing objects that challenge the senses. For instance, The Fear of Science houses gleaming steel pincers, forceps and other tools of bodily invasion amid extracted teeth, body parts, vials of sinister substances, preserved insects and the like.

It's all beautifully composed, aesthetically gratifying even as it makes the blood run cold. Even when he mixes in antique materials, the contents still seem to shriek out at you, as we see in The Gaff, a horrific skeletal mystery creature in a rustic display case. Much of this recalls Philadelphia's Mutter Museum of grotesque medical anomalies and biological mishaps, yet one senses a deeper potential in these sometimes loosely humorous, meticulously crafted, concoctions. But for now, at least, Greco seems content to let us take his Autopsies and such at face value.

click to enlarge Matjames' The Prettiest Girl in the World displays his affinity for objects once imbued with pride, love and beauty but are now faded and tarnished over time.
  • Matjames' The Prettiest Girl in the World displays his affinity for objects once imbued with pride, love and beauty but are now faded and tarnished over time.
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