Master of Puppets 

Geoffrey Cormier's quest for truth and beauty

Wayang Modern: An Evening of Modern Shadow Puppet Theatre
Presented by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art during Paper Moon
Sat. Dec. 1, 9 p.m.
Simons Center for the Arts, College of Charleston
$10
54 St. Philip St.
(843) 953-5680
www.halsey.cofc.edu

For much of the last century, there were two agendas vying for dominance among the felt lives of artists.

One was to create art people liked. The other was to create art people didn't like.

"If my work is accepted, I must move on to the point where it is not," said the composer John Cage, quoted in Peter Gay's new book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.

Especially during the Cold War era, these two mindsets grew increasingly at odds when high-minded European modernism began rubbing red-blooded middlebrow egalitarianism the wrong way. On the one hand, art had to challenge, rebel, overturn, or dismiss the values of an affluent and complacent bourgeoisie. On the other, art had to enlighten, enrich, exalt, or entertain the masses.

If you did it one way, you risked being called elitist, difficult, or inaccessible. Doing it the other way, though, meant you were pandering or dumbing down the art.

To young artists, however, like Geoffrey Cormier, whose original shadow puppetry performance will be performed at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art on Saturday, with original music by Charleston's New Music Collective, all this is old news. Art movements, style schools, manifestos, the raw spirit of revolution — he doesn't think about these things.

He doesn't care.

He's not alone. Many young artists born after the Summer of Love are increasingly suspicious of the politics of style.

Even in poetry and classical music, where games of postmodern rhetoric and the end game of atonality loomed for decades, respectively, communicating with an educated and aesthetically curious audience is what really matters.

(The most famous living poet is probably Billy Collins, not because he was twice voted U.S. Poet Laureate, but because he's a regular on A Prairie Home Companion and a prominent voice on YouTube. This despite being called "a crowd-pleaser" and an agent for the "dumbing down of American verse.")

A musician, artist, filmmaker, and puppeteer, Geoffrey Cormier believes that all one needs to know about art is truth and beauty. Like Walter Russell, a philosopher whom Cormier draws inspiration from, art is not about ideology. It's about plumbing and revealing the depths of the human soul.

"The art of anything is not in the skill of rendering a visible or audible thing but in the beauty and love that only the stillness of the Light of the Soul can give," Russell wrote in 1950. "And herein lies the difference between the genius of the master and soulless mediocrity."

For years, Cormier worked on the production side of Hollywood filmmaking, so he knows a lot about "soulless mediocrity." His credits includes The Notebook, Radio, Cold Mountain, and several other well-known feature films. He also spent time with the Jim Henson Company.

For all his accomplishments, however, Cormier didn't feel satisfied. He longed to explore the "genius of the master." That longing, combined with experience in film-making, in which a story's action takes place within a frame using light and dimension, led him to shadow puppetry.

"I could make what I see in my mind real for everyone else to see," Cormier says.

Cormier's last newsworthy production was in April on Upper King Street behind the Read Brothers building. There, he staged his adaptation of a short story by James Purdy. The show took place on a huge 13-by-16-foot screen and used life-sized costumes and miniature figures to tell the story of Mr. Evening, a man who covets what he cannot have, and two woman, Mrs. Owens, the real power broker of the tale, and her sister Pearl, who always makes tea.

"More to the point, it's about what you would do to get what you want," he says.

The first part of this weekend's production at the Halsey Institute, titled Wayang Modern, continues the story of Mr. Evening (the production is part of the Halsey's annual fund-raiser).

The second part of the show is an original script called "Who Does the Sun Shine For?" It's inspired by the puppet traditions of Indonesia and cultures of the Pacific rim.

The show features puppets made out of South Carolina sweetgrass, which gives the figures a rough texture and fragile, aboriginal charm. Original music by the New Music Collective builds into a "swirling crescendo of emotion," Cormier says.

The third part of the show is based on piano music by Walter Russell, the aforementioned New Age philosopher Cormier admires, called "Waltz of the Sea Children." This one, Cormier says, is all about beauty.

And with that word, "beauty," you start to see the sensibility, and sensitivity, of the man behind the curtain. Cormier launches into a percussive variation of the "beauty" theme. The words at first trickle during an interview at his house, which is cluttered with scraps of cardboard, wood, and string, and then grow to a steady stream. His abundant faith in beauty, longing to create something beautiful, and have others experience that beauty was striking for its simplicity, candor, and eagerness to connect. Given how much the politics of style has dominated art of all stripes for so long, perhaps this was a harbinger of things to come.

"I wanted to create something that's beautiful," he says. "That's all."


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