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Parties, Dreams and Hell 

There is a scene in Mikhail Bulgakov's landmark novel, The Master and Margarita, in which the narrator describes all of the guests and gossip at a party thrown by a state-sponsored cultural society in gut-wrenching detail. The intrigue, innuendo and courses of chicken a la king persist far into the night, accompanied by an increasingly shrill band and the increasingly shrill laughter of the partygoers. "It was, in short -- hell," said the narrator, of the party that preceded the devil's appearance in 1930s Moscow. We've all been to parties like that, and so apparently has Alex Beard, who based his new series of paintings on abstract talking heads, crowds of them, in manic, cocktail party mode.

At first, they suggest archaic runes or hieroglyphics, but the caricatured profiles that comprise them soon become evident. In The Ball, many manic physiognomies rise and fall in waves of raving flesh. Against opaque shades of blue, they evoke those lantern-jawed Easter Island stone carvings staring out to sea, or the old Mr. Potato Head toys of the Howdy Doody era. The lines of the eyes, noses and heads overlap, but the jaws are poised, tellingly, in wide-open expressive mode.

Where all this is headed becomes a little clearer in The Ice Festival. Here, the heads are even more Easter Islandish as the color scheme turns monochromatic in pale shades of parchment, and the lines repeat in near-hallucinogenic patterns recalling Dorothea Tanning's polymorphic paintings of female elementals, carnivorous clouds and such. What does it all mean? And where did they come from?

Beard says he's been doing drawings of these interlocking heads for most of his life, but never before as paintings, because of the difficulty of translating his near-calligraphic images into oil paints. But "a dream involving linseed oil" resolved that dilemma, and these canvases, like Bulgakov's diabolical characters, take on an almost mystical life of their own. Intriguing, uncanny stuff; it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

While Beard's canvases are consistently improbable, Michael Fedor's paintings, collages and mixed-media pieces at the Waiting Room Gallery are inconsistently so. Like Beard, Fedor delves into the subconscious for his imagery, but in this show his inspirations are more far flung and not nearly as focused. In one painting, a foetus in cowboy boots and spurs rides bareback on a scorpion woman as he twirls a lasso. The scorpion woman (human from the waist up, scorpion from the waist down) is decapitated -- her head floats backwards in space, blowing smoke at the rough-riding foetus. Hmmm. It's pretty convoluted stuff, and might have been easier to relate to had the work around it been more resolved. The same holds true for the mixed-media pieces, some of which are intriguing though many appeared tentative. While Fedor is a prolific muralist and a resourceful painter, the experimental melange seen here only hinted at his more focused efforts.

If a foetal cowboy riding bareback on a decapitated scorpion girl sounds a tad demonic, then maybe you haven't seen hell lately. Or maybe you have. Actually, Rodin's Gates of Hell bronzes at the Newcomb Gallery may look a little sedate compared to the musings of Beard and Fedor, yet it was all quite radical during the 1880s, when a still-obscure Rodin was commissioned to create the entrance portal for a proposed decorative arts museum. Based on the hell scenes described in Dante's Inferno, his figures embodied passion, despair, tragic love and even cannibalism, in a an orgy of carnal follies. Like Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, Rodin's Gates of Hell lived up to its name.

First, the decorative arts museum crashed and burned before it got off the ground, but it hardly mattered, as Rodin, like Coppola, could never finalize anything and kept changing the design for the next 20 years. Like Coppola, Rodin was obsessed, yet it all worked out in the end, as he spun off the individual components of Hell into larger, free-standing works that became signature statements. As heroic and damned as the characters it depicted, The Gates of Hell embodied Rodin's own myth, as elements such as The Kiss, The Thinker (said to represent Dante himself) and The Three Shades evolved into oversized bronze editions that took on a public life of their own. And so, after a long and tortuous evolution, the rest, as they say, is art history.

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