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Folk hero John Brown commemorated in exhibit.

Lessons Long-Remembered


It's often said that we Americans have no memory, that our sense of history is dim, inauthentic and filled with unclear associations. We assemble historical proxies, which at best enforce what we need to believe. That is one reason the exhibition currently presented by the Hand Workshop is so important, not only to see but to remember and understand. "After Flame" by Terry Adkins is an extensive memorial project. It symbolically interprets and poetically idealizes the story of slavery abolitionist, John Brown, who led the momentous 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal. The raid is widely acknowledged to have set the Civil War into motion. It was also a violent event, not created without its own ironies and atrocities toward the innocent. This traveling exhibition, which will tour to sites affected by his subject's legacy, eloquently commemorates this folk hero. In the cool temperament of time's healing arc the works are sanctified icons of John Brown, the man who cut through convention with his sword, cutting a country and an era in half, as well. Adkins' sculpture, made from discarded materials often found near the places Brown lived and died, interprets his devout life, referencing in these materials Brown's modest work tending flock and keeping bees. Adkins integrates these occupational themes into a biblical context, hinting at the zealous philosophical conscience that would lead to Brown's calling. Adkins shows his interest in the idea of a "calling" by using the iconography of music. In the works "Summit Hill" and "Communion Ghost" he borrows notation symbols; in "Vocal Form," "Sparks" or his video installation, "Hiving Be," he employs measured repetition or cadence visually and in the latter with sound. In "Divine Mute" he introduces an actual instrument part — the mouth of a sousaphone — to reference Gabriel's trumpet. Adkins, himself a musician, interprets John Brown as a man whose ultimate expression of destiny derives from clearly understanding the mythology of his daily labor and its biblical import. "Meteor Stream" is the closest to a portrait of John Brown's character and essence. Attached high on the gallery wall it is a cascade of carded lambs wool that descends as an unruly column from a steel comb. It references Brown's trademark abundant beard and his identity as a shepherd, ultimately of men. It offers a condition of promise-for-effort such as Jacob's ladder or Rapunzel's tresses. Above, the large blackened metal sheep's comb proposes a gate, a final obstacle that culls the refuse and grooms the worthy. "After Flame" is a considerable series of sculptural messages that bring a significant facet of our cultural growth back to life and to mind. All is not well here yet. Our city buses are compelled to remind us with signs that housing discrimination is still illegal, and certain symbols continue to aggravate the scar. Nonetheless, owing to our natural forgetfulness of the facts but our general adoption of their lessons, we continue as a whole nation to climb the long expanse of Mr. Brown's old beard.

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