THE TITLE OF James Charles' exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center, "The Interval Between Being and Not-Being," is more than trendy psycho-babble employed by an artist who hopes to make his exhibit appear more interesting than it really is. Charles forages in those dangerous life-cracks where belief is accidentally misplaced or intentionally lost; it's this "between" where his dark work wanders, haunt-ing viewers with religious imagery that could be considered both sacred and profane.
Charles' earliest exposure to art was viewing the religious paintings in the churches and schools he attended. "Going to school in close proximity to a cathedral and serving as an altar boy gave me many opportunities to view the paintings throughout the building," Charles writes in the exhibit's artist statement. "When the paintings were discussed with us, the students, the emphasis was on symbolism and the lessons being taught."According to Charles, the traditional role of images in Catholicism is that of instruction - the symbolic use of figurative elements in conjunction with abstract signs to inform the viewer. "Like those paintings, I am always telling about something in my art," he writes.
Most of Charles' pieces reflect the influence of his Catholic upbringing as well as his experiences on a hospital ship during the Vietnam War. He employs the cross as a symbol, not only for Christianity but also of medicine and healing.
Nearly all of the 14 pieces in the exhibit have a cheerless, black background that nearly consumes the viewer. Charles achieves this visual gloom through a combination of texture (plaster on wood panel) and a mixture of varnish and printer's asphaltum. This produces a glossy black surface. He also employs a mixture of powdered graphite with verathane, which yields a flat black.
In his piece "Dream Ritual," Charles repeats the image of the cross in an ordered assembly, suggesting to the viewer the order a religion is meant to provide. Below the embedded crosses and the smothering blackness rests a two-headed snake. Giving the snake two heads symbolizes both good and evil and serves as a reminder that the snake, before Christianity, was seen as a positive symbol. This ambiguity runs throughout Charles' work, reinforcing the precarious nature of being "in between."
Another symbol Charles often uses in his work is the "everyman." "My `everyman' is a face of a cadaver head which was being used for medical research," Charles writes. "The `everyman' face brings a human element to the piece. The passivity and serenity of the face make it appear that it is beyond or apart from the struggle of life."
In his "Choosing the Virgin," Charles deals with the mystery of predestination; in "Fixing the Point of View" he evaluates the control and subjugation of women; in "Empathy With a Drowned Body" he shows us death.
"One night" he writes, "an approaching helicopter with seven men aboard went down in the water before reaching the hospital ship. We looked for them and came back the next day and fished the bodies out. The helicopter in this image takes on the shape of the Red Cross as it lifts the body from the blackness."
"The Interval Between Being and Not-Being" is the work of a talented artist who struggles with the changing of things long held to be unchangeable, an artist who wonders if there are others who battle with the chaos of life and humanity. The show is never negative, but always questioning.