In Charlie Parker’s classic hit “Now’s the Time,” the jazz great culls us to “Gather around, tale to be told - Maybe it's new, maybe it's old, listen my friend…”
Bird of a feather, Todd Pavlisko resurrects this crooning in his layered exhibition by the same title. Pavlisko’s “Now’s the Time” looks at the proclamation less as a carpe diem call to action and more as an internal examination of that endless cycle of being stuck in one’s own head—that often comfortably uncomfortable, seemingly tractionless mental hovering over one’s deep desires and obsessions. The time that is now in Pavlisko’s case is like that rinse-and-repeat “now-time” that gets played over and over again in our heads—the record needle of our fixations continually getting waxed right back to the beginning, onto the scratchy edge of our memory’s looped replay. Pavlisko asks us to “gather around,” not necessarily to join arms and plot our path to rattle change, but rather to step inside a chamber of passions—a cauldron of boiling preoccupations. Through these individual works, which also function collectively as a singular installation, the artist gives us a peek behind the curtain as he steps us through a visual landscape of his own character development while also asking us to find ourselves (or not) within this veritable garden of earthly delights. Welcome, if you will, to this jungle.
Commensurate with a frequent Pavlisko approach, a casting call of supporting actors enters the stage to play various roles throughout. These protagonists sometimes appear overtly through direct depiction (portraiture) and other times more quietly through subtextual reference. Irrespective, that they are scripted-in points to their prominence in Pavlisko’s own life. Their cameos collectively enact a main character in the show, the “mirror mirror on the wall,” so to say. Pavlisko, of course, knows these people well—rather, is these people in a way. But, for the reader, some introductions...
Given the exhibition casting great attention to the artist’s interests in science, innovation, and cross-pollinating disciplines, one of his principal roles is assigned to Dr. Robert Carter, Professor and Chair of the UMASS, Boston Chemistry department. Dr. Carter plays two major parts—an artist in the show and an engineering collaborator on the fabrication of other works.
As an accomplished landscape artist himself, two of Carter’s own pieces appear as artworks within an artwork. Carter’s paintings at once articulate a certain Keatsian (“Beauty is truth…”) optimism and they play a conjunction role, connecting together other characters and ideas throughout. For example, in both paintings we see depictions of majestic soaring birds against quiet sunsets. Both the birds and the scenery imbue the exhibition with hopefulness and joy. But, the birds alone specifically thread together two other prominent pieces in the show.
One of these works connected by Carter’s “birds in flight” is the centrally located suspended birdcage, fabricated to the upscaled contours of Pavlisko’s own visage, complete with a living bird contained within. As a symbolic gesture, the birdcage continues the autobiographical track with a portrayal of the so-called creative mind (here both container and contained), describing that liminal space between idea and form—between focused concentration and absolute madness. The bird-in-painting = bird-in-cage comparison is only part of Carter’s connection to this work. For, operating behind the scenes, the very fabrication of the birdcage is made possible by a chemical process orchestrated by Dr. Carter. In a highly controlled environment, Pavlisko and Carter worked with an aqueous form of ammonia to alter the lignin of the wood, permitting the near unnatural shape-shifting of the lumber.
Relatedly, Carter’s scientific expertise is also called upon in another work, where once more we see a Duchampian “assist” to an everyday object—in this case, two sledge hammers with aberrantly twisted and entwined handles. Aptly titled The Lovers, this sculpture hammers home any number of complexities that exist in so many domestic entanglements. Not the least of which are Pavlisko’s own endeavors in love—making this sculpture a fertile expression of his own near-twisted virility, his own insatiable appetite for that happy ending to so many stories.
But, more on birds... The second aviary analogy lands more quietly—in a mixed media drawing representation of jazz great Charlie Parker, famously nicknamed “The Bird.” Parker makes his grand entrance in the form of a signature Pavlisko move, where an otherwise straightforward graphite portrait is transfigured by the punctured addition of gemstones hanging from elegant chains. In this portrait, Pavlisko decorates Parker for his massive impact on the broader creative class, while simultaneously offering some dangling participial nuance about his own infatuation with the musician—demonstrating once more how an altered portrait of one person can tell the story of two. Additionally, this modestly scaled work is curiously nested in a floor-to-ceiling arrangement of thousands of Play-Doh cans. Pavlisko’s work—already often marked by a sense of play and adventure—comes to a fever pitch with this dramatic move. Through this Play-Doh patina, Pavlisko at once undermines the sterility of the white cube and provides the architectural proscenium (both physical and conceptual) for Parker’s portrait. As for the physical, the Play-Doh becomes the wall, complete with a window opening where Parker (and by extension, Pavlisko) peeks through the punch-out to survey the room with a knowing glance—perhaps an insider’s wink about their colorfully molded minds. The conceptual component is twofold. On the one hand, the Play-Doh itself, just by brand identity, injects the installation with the suggestion of exploration and wonderment—as in the endless possibilities of what can be shaped and molded when we unpack these wonderful mounds of colorful dough. Too, these cans—all carefully serialized and contextualized as they are—become Pavlisko’s “Campbell’s soup cans,” his not-by-coincidence nod to Warhol and Pop. Having cut his pedagogy molars at The Andy Warhol Museum in the Education department, Pavlisko routinely evokes Warholian aesthetics and Pop props as a vehicle to steer content. Here, the Pop (vis a vis the Play-Doh) outright drives the content by, again, literally framing this object we see and metaphorically containing the ideas we perceive.
Conceptually bookending Charlie Parker, even taunting him with a side-eyed glance from a perpendicular wall, we find a larger-than-life pixelated portrait of renowned scientist Albert Hoffman, darling discoverer and stalwart researcher of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Right away—on the tracers of a rainbow—Hoffman’s specter floats like a pot of gold, color-complementing and content-contouring the Play-Doh-fueled Parker portrait next door. The mouthful that that is… pales in contrast to the mindful attention Pavlisko pays to intentionally establishing connections between these works, these personalities, these compartments of his own head. The visual cohesion alone draws these two works into formal harmony. The color burst from the Play-Doh has great fidelity with the tone of the Hoffman image—itself made from another Pavlisko go-to material where, with gridlock precision, he painstakingly pierces thousands of colored price tag fasteners through a canvas. The rich commerce commentary is nicely punctuated by the shag-like visual oozing of the imagery popping off the substrate. Beyond the mere visual accord, these two works also speak to each other with great conceptual congruency. On just the simplest of terms, think about how this image of Hoffman makes a worthy analogue to the wall of Play-Doh and the Parker image within. The Play-Doh, with suggestions of malleability and imagination molding, conjures quick associations to Hoffman’s celebrated explorations around the mind-altering effects of LSD. The sense of play and exploration, the idea of unpacking something that permits (even causes) mental meandering, the spirit of expanding the mind and sharpening creative vision—these are all the tropes that align these two works and connect to the self-portraiture of the overall exhibition.
Returning to the nest, we see peppered throughout a suite of smaller sculptures suspended in space like floating thought bubbles, swirling around as footnote attendees to the broader narratives. Each work in this body utilizes a knotted mass of entangled neon strands, like some Harold Edgerton frozen capture of a swirling atomic electron. Look carefully to discover words and phrases spiraling out of the nuclei in a cursive escape. Phrases plucked from song lyrics or pop cultural contexts punctuate these bundles and provide a kite-tail balance between their form and their content. Speaking of content(s), inside each light-nest, we see a perfectly encapsulated pair of Christian Louboutin high-heeled shoes. These caged objects of desire point to a cultural obsession with high fashion and, going back to Keats, provide a glimpse into Pavlisko’s own ruminations on the aesthetics of beauty.
“Now’s the Time” furthers Todd Pavlisko’s examination of the self—without being yet another shameless ego blast, without that deplorable insistence that we invest in the tedium of understanding just who is this Pavlisko person. Instead, the artist handily—yes—does show us himself, shows us what makes him tick, what makes him high, what makes him quiver, what keeps him up at night, what turns him on. Ultimately, what makes him human. What makes us human. But, again, he shows us all of this less as a memoir or a straight story and more as probing periscope coming up for air to get a look at the world around. That peered-into “world” may arguably be the headspace of our main character—the artist at hand. But it is also a survey of the subjective complexities we see in ourselves, of ruminations on our own narratives for which we dare to deep-dive. So, indeed, gather around. There is a tale to be told. It might be new, it could be old. But, do listen my friends. Do listen. You might just learn a bit about yourselves as you read this story—a story that operates both as an autobiographical snapshot and perhaps moreover as a personality litmus test for those adventurous enough to look within, as they attend the tale.
- Kristin Rogers is an artist, writer, and educator currently living in Cleveland, Ohio