If you've been downtown recently, you'll have noticed some big, unblinking eyes watching you from posters and stickers. If you're on the Halsey Institute's mailing list, you've probably received an e-mail that promises you'll see "an eyeful," with a Benday-dotted orb attached. The searing image recurs in the work of the Hilton Head-based Aldwyth, an artist who will be the first to exhibit in the Halsey's brand new gallery space. Ironically, this artist, whose watchful eyes seem to follow us nearly everywhere we go, has been toiling for years out of sight of the art world.
Aldwyth lives and works in a small, 800-square-foot octagonal house on a salt marsh, where she creates collage and fastidious assemblage (sculptures made from a combination of found objects). The little house symbolizes her humility, her obscurity, and her fascination with the miniature illustrations and tiny printed words that make up catalogues, résumés, and encyclopedias.
Aldwyth's house is filled with 20 years' worth of intensely personal, rarely exhibited artwork. When Halsey Director and Senior Curator Mark Sloan first visited her there in the mid-'90s, he was intrigued. "I thought, 'Someone's going to see this and scoop her up,'" he says. "Lo and behold, no one was doing it, so I decided to do it myself."
Aldwyth's art subsequently appeared at the Halsey in 1999's The Right to Assemble, alongside five other assemblage artists. By the time her art appeared in another prominent group show, 2006's Penumbra, she had gone on to produce some incredible collages.
Sloan draws a direct comparison between the artist and the Halsey Institute. They've both been plugging away, doing great things for a long time with little national attention or acclaim. "No one's heard of us," he says. "We're two underdogs coming out together, joining forces." It's true that the epic, colorful nature of Aldwyth's collages are sufficiently dramatic for the grand opening of a new gallery space. But the art also looks aged and otherworldly, in direct contrast with the Halsey's contemporary, clean white walls and ceilings bristling with bright lights.
The art's early 20th century feel is partly due to the materials Aldwyth uses. A lot of her collages are on Japanese Okawara paper that looks creased and well-perused, like the pages of a much-loved hundred-year-old book. There are also a lot of brown and gray colors that blend with her cut-out monochrome photos of eyes. Many of her earlier assemblage pieces are cabinets of curiosities, with drawers full of messages and detritus that beg to be rummaged through. The artist sees these objects as something you could sit in an armchair with, pick up and look through — an antiquated multimedia alternative to a book. But they're too delicate to stand the strain of hundreds of well-meaning curiosity seekers. The temptation to touch and examine is so great — especially for school parties — that a video has been commissioned.
John Reynolds' 30-minute film will give viewers a chance to see what's in those cabinets when all the doors are opened and the contents are removed. This tour de fourrage will be accompanied by original music by Bill Carson.
Since Aldwyth's 26-piece cigar box encyclopedia can't be opened by visitors either, Sloan is exhibiting each box with the lid already up, accompanied by a reproduction of the top and bottom of the box. The encyclopedia will be the biggest hit of the show for children, as each letter of the alphabet is illustrated with found objects — "A" includes severed doll arms and scrapbook simulacra of Adam, an airplane, and an A-bomb mushroom cloud.
Beyond the fun and ingenuity that this show promises, there's a sense of the unexpected that suits the Halsey's new rooms perfectly. The Cato Building has corridors, large and small rooms, nooks and crannies; turn a corner and you'll find more amazing assemblage. The experience may be overwhelming at times, but viewers will definitely be surprised by what they see. That's a good indication for the future of this bold new gallery space.