Pamela Wilson's Grim Fairy Tales at the Sarah Bain Gallery in Anaheim

Decayed Landscape
Pamela Wilson's grim fairy tales

Imagine that you have a lovably morbid little niece, a budding Wednesday Addams who likes to cut the heads off her teddy bears, who's gone as the Corpse Bride for a few too many Halloweens. She flies through Edward Gorey picture books the way other kids go through Dr. Seuss, and she swoons with horror at the mention of Hannah Montana. She gets teased a lot, and more than once, her teachers have suggested that the pictures she draws in class are cause for concern. We will call her Lenore.

One chilly morning, you invite Lenore (and her only slightly less dramatic mommy, whom we shall call Dora) to come along for a drive to the beach, and you bring your camera. Lenore decides to make the day into a photo shoot and brings along her box of old-timey dresses and hats, her dolls and puppets. The next thing you know, you've been pressed into service, trying to capture on film the various dark fairy tales of Lenore's devising, with Dora chiming in with her own weird suggestions. You end up having to chase Lenore and Dora across the wet sand and through fields of dead, crunchy grass, taking shots of them in assorted glamorous but cheap and ill-fitting costumes as the salty sea breezes blow their stringy hair in their faces.

You would come home with pictures of a cute, chubby little girl and her cute, chubby mommy, both straining to look eerie against dramatic backdrops. These pictures would be pretty awesome, but Lenore would hate them so much that she'd make you promise to destroy them. You'd lie and say you had, and then when she was 25, you'd dig them out again and show them to her, and she would laugh and laugh.

Well, Pamela Wilson has somehow seen the photos from your hypothetical day at the hypothetical beach with your hypothetical niece, and she's used them as the basis for some amazing oil paintings. In "Dispossessed," her new show at the Sarah Bain Gallery, Wilson creates girly yet gritty fairy tales, like scenes from Terry Gilliam movies that never happened. If you actually staggered away from Tideland wanting more, well, this is the show for you.

Anybody who has ever seen Goth art has probably seen plenty of little girls in frayed tutus clutching sickly looking dollies. And yet, Wilson takes the stuff of Goth cliché and makes it all seem brand-new. She has a near-photographic eye, expertly capturing the look of slightly woozy determination on the face of a Disarranged Fairy God Mother as she trudges through the snow with an anxious baby under her arm, or the play of autumnal light through the veil of the slouchy, wannabe child bride in Barren Omen. Wilson's symbolism often seems obvious—until you figure out that you're not really sure what she's getting at. The weary sexpot of Remedies for a Blind Spot is dressed like some kind of super-spy as she looks through a tin of old photos. She has binoculars by her side and a complicated contraption with a lot of lenses on top of her head, all of which clearly suggests . . . well, I'm supposed to be the critic here, but your guess is as good as mine. Apparently she has a blind spot, and these devices are meant to remedy it. That much, we can be sure of.

The paintings seem to be telling an ongoing story of some kind. Various characters recur, and you have the feeling that all of this stuff is taking place in the same warped county. And what a grimly evocative county it is—you can almost hear the snap of dead twigs underfoot and smell the green scum at the edge of those stagnant ponds. It's a decayed landscape, a perfectly natural world where these unnatural characters find themselves. When Wilson places an apparently abandoned freeway in the middle of a brown, weedy field, as she does in Regarding Rex, the effect is at once apocalyptic and strangely familiar. You feel as if you once stood in this lonely place yourself, although whether in a dream or reality, you can't say. Perhaps that crazy old man with the antlers could offer some directions.

It's all very confusing, but wonderfully so. If you're lucky enough to know your own little Lenore, be sure to bring her along to this show. She'll probably be quite happy to explain all of this stuff to a dopey grown-up like you.

Pamela Wilson's "Dispossessed" at Sarah Bain Gallery, 411 W. Broadway, Ste. C, Anaheim, (714) 758-0545; www.sarahbaingallery.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Through Sat.

 
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