"Narrative Wood," which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, suggests torture in the toy shop. Its carved and painted pieces of sophisticated folk art manage to collage devils, dogs and lovers, nightmares from the nursery, nostalgia and disaster. They charm -- but not too much.
There are four artists represented. One is 26 years old, another 91. All of them work wood, affectionately, carefully; all of them tell tales; and all of them believe in painstaking craftsmanship -- and in soured fun.
That sourness is crucial. This funny show succeeds because its fun is bent by meanness.
Its whittled faces grimace, its young lovers cheat. Those gracious chatting ladies, by Washington's Linda Swick, are genteel birdbrained dummies; snakes slither through Swick's carvings; her jumping cows and leaping lovers do not die melodiously, but instead go splat! "The Kids" of Miles Carpenter -- who, at 91, is still going strong in Waverly, Va. -- are monsters of a sort. Also somehow monstrous is the huge Dalmatian that's been carved and smoothed and painted by Richmond's Lester Van Winkle: The rabbit it is nuzzling may soon be torn apart. There are 40 objects in this show, and many of them bite. The "story boards" produced by Washington's Henry Leo Schoebel are meticulously patterned, their colors are delicious, but still they sing of drowning, betrayal and starvation.
Pitchforks puncture sinners here, fanged jaws open wide, a sharp spade, large as life, is stabbed into the floor, and young men's legs are bloodily chomped off at the knee. The viewer tends to be grateful for that violence. For nothing falls as flat -- in art -- as the wholly happy joke.
Recent years have seen -- especially in craft shows -- far too many objects that try too hard to tickle. Their lack of acid kills them. Painted beauty grows with time, and painted sadness resonates, but jokes rot with retelling. One-liners that work in film or conversation tend to flop in sculpture. Sculpture sticks around.
These objects, although humorous, fight off such decay. In some ways they seem new. The Corcoran's Clair List, who put this regional show together, writes that its "four artists, even though one is a folk artist, exhibit a close affinity to recent art movements." She cites the debts they owe to others, to Chicago's H.C. Westermann, California's Roy De Forest, and Red Grooms of New York; her essay in the catalogue mentions Pop Art, Minimal Art, Pattern Painting and New Image, too. It is true that Schoebel may be read as part Pattern Painter and part Indian miniaturist; Swick, when she makes pyramids, is something of a Minimalist, and Van Winkle edits radially -- but in many ways these artists aim for the old-fashioned. They like the past as much as they do the present. They have learned as much from toys, and from old genre paintings, as they have from ArtForum. All their objects tell us stories. That's what art used to do.
Carpenter, an exceptionally imaginative old-time country whittler, offers us a nursing sow complete with eight small piglets, one, of course, a runt. (The piece includes a sound effect: Press it and it squeals.) There are, as one expects, four-and-twenty blackbirds in his "Blackbird Pie" (1974). His monsters are terrific, their maws are red, their fangs are sharp, but his puns tend toward the corny. His "Nixon's Watergate" includes a pipe and well (for water) and a swinging gate.
Van Winkle's painted sculptures, although finely made, seem the least evocative pieces in the show. His trompe l'oeil spade and bamboo cane and red snake-skin cowboy boots, although carved of wood, look so much like the real thing that the real thing would do (and sometimes, when he's pressed, as with those twisted iron table legs, the real thing does do). The wooden cane, the woman's hand and the cat in his "Irma" conjure an old woman; his boots (and a Camel pack) suggest his home state, Texas. There is something dull about the tales that he tells.
Swick's memorable work is less familiar, more mysterious. The serpent of temptation, with snake eyes for its eyes, slithers among gambler's chips in her "Paradice Lost" (actually she won: she bought its mahogany and plywood with Atlantic City winnings). She seems the most original artist in this show. Her forms are unexpected. Her art, which mixes memories and secrets, misery and laughter, allows the mind to roam.
So does Schoebel's, though he borrows more than Swick does from the fill-it-yourself openness of wholly abstract art. The viewer is unlikely to read the painted shapes in his "1/4 Irish -- Ask My Mother" as a hut on the Old Sod, as a twisting road to Cooperstown or as the Andersonville prison camp where Schoebel's great-great-uncle died. There are entwined lovers in his "The True Story," but few viewers will detect them. Schoebel's pressing memories -- of faithless girlfriends, grade-school friends and accidents on the Beltway -- orchestrate the shining, decorative patterns that he paints so well, but they tell the viewer little. The show closes Nov. 29.