09 Dec 2010

The Man Behind the Mask

Wally Szyndler's Shimmering Macaw. Photo courtesy of CITY Gallery

When I arrived at CITY Gallery for the opening reception of the Wally Szyndler retrospective on Saturday, I had some very wrong preconceived notions.  The friends I went with told me his primary medium was crafting tribal-style masks from gourds.  Now, I’ve seen plenty of tribal masks and its all very cultural and serious.  There’s spiritual representation, history, tradition and all that.  And I’ve also seen my share of gourd art, mostly comprised of odd looking clocks, or other items with unidentifiable uses, on display at flea markets.  I couldn’t quite reconcile the two, which turned out to be one of the things that make this exhibition beautifully surprising.

Szyndler’s masks are eye-catching, to say the least.  Their former life as gourds gives them unique, organic shapes but they are decorated in creatively fantastical ways.  They leap from the wall with delicately blended sparkling color.  Some are decorated with gorgeous feathers that erupt in a plume, others have metallic manes that rise in the air or flow down the wall.  The facial expressions tell stories all their own.  These works are so unusual that you must first soak them in and reorient yourself to the world they’re portraying.  Once you’re able to inspect the details, you find a precision and delicacy that adds a whole new layer to the experience.

Generally, my experience with art falls into three categories:  art I just look at, art whose technical aspects draw me in to trying to figure out how it was created, and art that makes me want to get inside and be part of the piece.  These works fall into the second category for me.  The more time I spent with them, the more I began to see some of the whimsical spiritual representation behind them.  It made me smile to think about what it would have been like to be part of the process of creation; how the artist must have been laughing as he positioned sharp little teeth in the mouth of a particularly jubilant piece.

In addition to the masks, Szyndler crafted a variety of small containers and other large pieces, one unfinished but so beautifully simple that it sold despite not being for sale.  As a matter of fact, if you’re in the market for a Szyndler piece there were only two left unsold in the gallery so you’ll have to talk to the gallery director about finding other resources.

Szyndler’s personal story is as interesting and varied as his art.  A Trappist brother, Peace Corps volunteer and co-founder of Melwood, he was a much loved member of the community when he died earlier this year.  Many organizations and publications mourned his passing, including East City Art.  His spirit of dedication to service continues with the current retrospective, where proceeds are going to Art Enables, a studio and gallery for emerging artists with developmental and/or mental disabilities that Szyndler became involved in during his retirement.

Wally Szyndler, a Retrospective
Through January 1st
CITY Gallery
804 H Street, NE, Second Floor
Saturdays and Sundays, 1-5pm

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