Last Friday, I hopped over a guardrail, skirted the manicured lawn of a Providence golf course, scampered into trees, and clutched a rope (conveniently tied to a nearby tree) as I gingerly stepped down a slippery dirt slope toward Michael Bizon's secret art project. The trail stopped at the edge of a cliff of broken-up concrete with a tangle of rusty rebar snaking out.
Bizon's treasure map — which I'd obtained at 5 Traverse Gallery (5 Traverse Street, Providence), where the Providence artist and David Barnes of Newport are exhibiting work through September 13 — advised: "Enjoy the view. Shimmy down, you can do it, go for gold, not responsible. Take time, explore the Putrid Paradise Peninsula."
Vines dripped from trees and a creek emerged from a culvert. As I began to climb down, I stood on a log that twisted and gave way. I shifted to the concrete and rebar pile, carefully finding footing and hand holds, while picturing myself slipping, getting fatally impaled on the rebar, and turning into some legendary art world joke. 5 Traverse asks me to note: "The gallery makes visitors sign a liability release when they take a free map."
I survived. At the bottom stood Bizon's art hideout, a narrow, makeshift Masonite-walled shed, the dimensions of a midsized closet, with windows at each end. The walls inside were painted red and hung with various mirrors. On the dirt floor was a mattress covered with blue fabric featuring a sun and moon pattern.
You can feel Bizon edging up to something great. Back at 5 Traverse, he fills a darkened gallery with "Cypheromantic," an installation focused on a giant wall of speakers. It resembles an altar with its amplified hypnotic sound loop becoming the low voice of some deity or spirit. I'm told it's a super-slowmo version of rapper South Park Mexican's lyric, "You should know by now, I don't aim for the legs." (I deciphered slightly different words.)
AMPLIFYING THE MOOD Barnes's Bali.
Around the room are a wheelchair, a tacky parrot mobile, a framed altered text about "freedom from fear," a nightlight illuminating a bullet stuck into the wall, and a mirror-topped table supporting a razor blade and a pair of wooden hands holding dice. A framed page of type tells of looking out the window after a loud crash in the middle of the night and seeing a circle of kids around "a body, knocked out, laying horizontal in the street." A framed Polaroid photo shows a man with typed text below: "You should know now, I don't aim for the legs." The themes are music, violence, chance, drugs. It could be a shrine to gangsta rap.
Bizon reframes the glitz and posturing of pop culture, turning it strange, so that we can see it and feel it as its true self, a tribal cult with glorious rituals and altars and legions of faithful. Or at least these roots murmur underneath his work; Bizon is still figuring out how to tap their full force. Like the shanty in the woods, the end result is at times anticlimactic. It's hard to live up to our expectations when the magical mystery tour that Bizon invites us on gives off such a delicious sense of witnessing some secret club, being in on something, maybe getting away with something.
WALL OF SOUND Bizon's Man behind the curtain.
Also at 5 Traverse, David Barnes presents oil paintings and watercolors that the gallery says are inspired by news photos of calamities. Bali (2008) uses a range of greens and blues to depict a crowd on a narrow city street under glowing nighttime signs. A light in the distance could be an explosion or a bright marquee, you can't tell.
What's most attractive here is his expressionist manner — loose, washy, brushy, with drips — that recalls the figurative version of Abstract Expressionism that percolated out of California's Bay Area at mid-century. The best works amplify the mood by sticking to just a few neighboring hues or opposites on the color wheel. Barnes works atop aluminum printing plates which aren't very absorbent, causing paint to sit on the surface, retain a glossy sheen, and exude a sense of speed.
Barnes may feel his subjects give his paintings needed conceptual heft, but it doesn't come through. Bali could just be a depiction of people out having fun on a balmy night. When the painting itself is this catchy, maybe that's plenty.