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Darkness and Magic

Artists use Shakespeare as a muse in an exhibit honoring 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

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A Midsummer Night's Dream is the sweetest of Shakespeare's plays.

By the light of a full moon, its two sets of mismatched lovers pursue one other in a summer forest enchanted by fairies. Old Will conjures up the summer night in lines like Hippolyta's "then the moon, like to a silver bow new-bent in heaven, shall behold the night ... ."

Likewise, a fairy conjures the flowers blooming in the fertile woods, saying, "and I serve the fairy queen, / to dew her orbs upon the green. / The cowslips tall her pensioners be; / In their gold coats spots you see; / Those be rubies, fairy favours ... ."

Blossoms, moonlight, dreams, enchantment and the alluring language itself: All these are well nigh irresistible to the visual artist. Thus when Elouise Rusk, proprietor of Obsidian Gallery, proclaimed A Midsummer Night's Dream the theme (and title) of her annual summer invitational, some 60 artists responded and mixed their media to produce works that riff on night and magic.

Margo Burwell, a Pima Community College digital arts professor, was so bewitched by Shakespeare's words that she painted the full text of two of the Bard's sonnets on the tabletop of her "Shakespeare Nightstand Shrine."

At left is Sonnet No. 73, a wintry poem that begins, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, / do hang." At right is the celebrated paean to summer, Sonnet No. 18: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate ... ."

The artist's colors reflect the sonnet's opposing temperaments. Midnight blues and moonlit silvers--at the bottom of the real-life night table--evoke winter/night, and daybreak orange and yellow on the top suggest summer/day. The stand's two side panels serve as wooden canvases for paintings, both depicting actors cavorting in the Midsummer Night forest, inside a flowery proscenium arch. A painted theatrical red curtain hangs above the scenes in progress.

Burwell's Shakespearean homage is charming, and a nice visceral deviation from the technical flatness of digital art. But it should come with a caveat: Decked out in crayon-bright colors and brilliant poetry, this nightstand is hardly conducive to sleep, or dreams.

Only a handful of artists addressed the play directly. For those who did, a favorite subject is Titania, the fairy queen, who under a spell falls in love with the ass--the workman Bottom magically converted into a donkey.

Scott Ellegood, a contemporary fiber artist who's been getting attention lately for his groundbreaking embroidery, created "Self Portrait (as Titania Queen of the Fairies)." His small, circular stitches in yellow and cerulean accurately re-create his face, but he's given himself a fairy cap, pointing down toward his eyes. Donna Adamo's "Queen Titania's Night Mask" is a mixed-media affair. The artist made a nearly abstract painting in black and silver on a piece of found wood. Tiny cutout eye holes make a mere suggestion of a mask, and the fairy queen's face is only faintly visible.

Printmaker Mary Lou Williams reset the whole crazy Midsummer story in a 1950s nightclub, in her comical linoleum cut, "The Adored Bottom, Entertained by Titania and the Midsummer Night Dreams." Donkey-head Bottom is a midcentury sugar daddy, complete with a sharp suit and cigar, while Titania is the sexy lead singer in an all-girl trio. The two separate linocuts, painted with watercolors, are drawn with a sure hand and bright colors.

Instead of reworking the story, most of the artists parsed its title and extracted its separate parts, especially Night and Dreams, to guide their works. Abstract painter Rudy Nadler, for instance, turned in two paintings hinting at the night sky, "Atmosphere to Action #1" and "#2." Painted in oils and mixed media on panel, these delicious little works in umber and gray suggest clouds moving across a dark infinity. Nadler energetically attacked the surfaces, spattering them with drops of white paint and creating deep crevices with thick brushstrokes.

Aimee Baker made a quirky papercut, whose title, "Mole Under Star Mountain," exactly describes the scene. A mole burrows under a steep mountaintop, while stars twinkle in the black sky above. Set in an oval, adorned with paper moons waxing and waning, the unusual piece is exceptionally well crafted. Another nice nighttime piece is Tabitha Adams' "Into the Night Sky/Search," an oil on linen of a woman in a black veil scanning a twilight sky that's deepening from turquoise to teal.

The dream theme reeled in more artists than any other. Encaustic artist Mauricio Toussaint made male and female dream scenes, "Sueño S-3" and "Sueña S-6." The two long, narrow panels--pink for girls, blue for boys--hang vertically side by side, each with an image of a bed planted in the boughs of a tall, skinny tree.

Beata Wehr's "Dream" is a tiny, square mixed-media piece that assembles the parts of an elusive dream like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Strips of paper printed with French words ("Your opinion interests us," says one) form a cityscape beneath a sky whitewashed over newspaper. A length of red string tumbles across this space like a tumbleweed.

Karl Vidstrand, better known as a cartoonist, turned the dream into a nightmare. "Midsummer Night's Dream--The Nightmare" takes on the Shakespearean tragedy of our current war in Iraq, and everything else that's gone wrong in the last few deadly years. His elaborate cutout drawing, crafted of found materials, is hung over a gallery window. The light filtering inside--light into darkness--makes the images visible.

The pretext for the war, the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, is pictured dead-center. Doomed people jump headfirst to their deaths. Elsewhere, derricks spout oil above American homes trapped in a frenzy of consumption, desperate for Middle Eastern oil. A "Mall at the Prison" is a big store with a sign advertising "Internment Day," an allusion to the Bush administration practice of jailing alleged enemy combatants without trial. And all around are U.S. tanks and American GIs pointing rifles at terrified Iraqi civilians.

The dark piece is at odds with the lightness of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it resonates with the black themes in plays like Macbeth or Henry IV. Inspired by Vidstrand's apocalyptic vision, one can imagine Shakespeare recasting Bush as an inept prince--a Hal who never turns serious, a Hamlet without introspection--who stumbles into a bloody war that he can neither understand nor end.

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