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Foreign Exchanges

Todd Fjelsted's artwork provocatively alludes to the subversive potential of gay desire

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To get to Todd Fjelsted's office on the campus of SAS Institute in Cary, you must walk through corridors that perfectly embody a corporate aesthetic--slick, homogenous surfaces; arid groupings of nondescript furniture; watercolor paintings--behind glass, in steel frames. "For creative types, this can be a distraction," Fjelsted remarks.

Once inside his office, however, the blandness gives way to a map of a personality: a photograph of Fjelsted as a boy, standing with his family in front of a small, suburban house in Columbus, Ohio; a 1950s series of art books, each containing a set of drawings from a specific region of the world, throughout history; a small collection of plastic toys; a rocket-shaped desk lamp; a painting by another local artist, Paul Friedrich, creator of the Onion Head Monster comic.

Fjelsted has agreed to meet in his office at Alternate Route Studios--a new division of SAS specializing in high-end television commercials and full-service special effects--to show his artwork and talk about his artistic career. He begins by projecting onto his office wall slides of a 1999 installation titled Home Movie. The installation, which was at the Tire Shop Gallery in Raleigh, imagines a room where Pinocchio might live after having grown middle-aged without ever realizing his dream of becoming real. This room is a basement dwelling, with a decor combining "Wal-Mart Christmas" with "Scientific American." Artificial trees and plastic holiday decorations are juxtaposed with laboratory supplies that seem both familiar (a junior telescope) and arcane (pieces of scrap metal shaped like small appliances). The side walls of the space look like water-stained cement, and the floor is covered with iridescent, imitation snowflakes. In the center of the rear wall--which is neatly papered with fake dollar bills--a fireplace opening frames a man's torso, dangling head first over hellish flames. Adjacent to the fireplace is a double window with opaque panes. A cold, serene light emanates from it.

In the middle of the room, supine on a bare mattress, Fjestled himself plays the disaffected puppet. The role requires the artist to wear a black fright wig, a clown-like mask, and a joke version of Bavarian dress (oversized bow tie, cap with feather, and suspenders for lederhosen). In a state of rapt nostalgia, he operates a toy machine that shows a movie of Pinnochio's adventures on the opposite wall.

Then all of a sudden, Fjelsted's slide projector jams, and the image disappears from the office wall. There is an eerie correspondence between Fjelsted's performance in the installation and his patient fiddling with the slide projector, an early model Bell and Howell. In place of the cap and lederhosen, however, he is wearing a camouflage T-shirt and workman's pants. Soon the projector is back in working order, and we resume looking at his slides.

Fjelsted's work falls into three main categories: installations, built in three-dimensional space, that incorporate a mixture of handmade and found materials; assemblages of found objects, combined into a two-dimensional work, displayed on a wall; and paintings or drawings on board. While these categories generally hold, certain features of his work are constant throughout them, and aspects that might seem unique to one category figure prominently in another.

As an example of assemblage, we look at "The Mommymaker"--a collection of toy signifiers for "Mommy" and "homemaker," which pays tribute to the immediacy of childhood desire. The toys--which include miniature ovens, plastic dishes, slippers, baby shoes, a small broom and vacuum cleaner--are applied to a dusty violet background that is patterned with tiny, white cotton dots. The surface of the work resembles an aerial view of a city, while the individual pieces look like buildings clustered in the same square formations of city blocks. The models of baking ovens, with tiny bulbs inside, have transparent photographs inserted in their doors, so that the images--mostly of Fjelsted as a child--appear to glow.

The assemblage, with its overabundance of detail, deliberately overloads the senses. A neat trick is the illusion of differentiation: On first glance, it appears that each object is different, but the longer you look, the less variation you see. More than difference, you encounter segmented objects--compartments, divisions, containers, molds, units and drawers. And the colors are all of a candy variety--pastel pink, baby blue, berry magenta, pale turquoise, mint green. They are "girl colors," artificial colors, fragrant and fruity, with a bitter aftertaste. While the initial impression may be of sentimental kitsch, it's transformed by the work's complex treatment of formal relationships among the elements.

Another slide shows "Clowning for the Mommy Ghost," an acrylic-on-wood piece that's striking for its illusion of three-dimensionality. An impression of three separate planes is created by the varying textural modes--tiny, vivid Pinocchio images (foreground), against a ghostly outline of Snow White (middle ground), on three weather-beaten wood planks (background). This formal aspect of the work, along with the symbolic connotations of its content (mother and whore, past and present, Europe and America), results in a feeling of collapsed space and time--a fusion of multiple realities.

The planks are joined together vertically, and their edges comprise the irregular frame for a portrait of Snow White. Her figure is rendered in smooth, elegant, flowing lines, and she is shown at an irregular angle, in a reclining, come-hither pose. Her left hand is pushed against her hip, and her head, slightly tilted, is propped up by her right hand. Scattered about the field of the painting are seven lucky Pinocchios. All are painted in vivid detail, and all strike playful poses. The work seems contradictory in its combination of drawing and sculpture, assemblage and collage. Still, the important point is the subtle exchanges that occur.

Todd Fjelsted moved to North Carolina with his family, to a suburb in North Raleigh, when he was 9 years old. "I knew I was gay very early," he says, "but I tried not to be." Around the age of 15, his family underwent what Fjelsted describes as a "religious conversion," which sent the family to church and bible study regularly. It was a confusing time for him. "I think my parents knew that I was gay, unconsciously, and like most parents, panicked about the possible results--ostracism, embarrassment, AIDS," he says.

He attended W. G. Enloe High School in 1982, the first year of Wake County's magnet school program, and gravitated toward the art making and creative writing classes. Like a lot of gifted teenagers, he excelled in creative endeavors, scored high on standardized tests, but made poor grades. After graduation from Millbrook High School, where he had transferred for his senior year, he won an art scholarship to a small community college in western North Carolina.

Unable to concentrate on subjects that didn't interest him, Fjelsted didn't fare much better there. "In college, I found myself retreating to the artist studios on campus when I was supposed to be in a math class," he says. "I would be putting finishing touches on a theater set when I should have been studying for an exam." Fjelsted left college without a degree and spent the next couple of years on a walkabout, experimenting with drugs, taking freelance design assignments, and painting murals on commission. After a brief stint in Charlotte and a longer stay in Atlanta, he moved back to Raleigh in 1991.

The next five years were an explosion of activity, during which Fjelsted opened a gallery, set up a studio above a downtown restaurant, and started doing freelance design work for local businesses. He went into partnership with some neighbors who had purchased a block of downtown storefronts, and opened Stray Studios, which housed studio and exhibition space for a dozen artists.

Eventually, he left the gallery and started to concentrate on his own work, but he was reluctant to exhibit it. "I knew there was an abundance of art out there that wasn't ready for public consumption, due to poor execution and conceptual problems," he says. "I tried not to show much of what I'd made until I felt that I was actually conveying something important to me, themes that I returned to, imagery that stayed with me. God knows there's plenty of stuff out there that I never should have let past the studio door, but you have to force it out sometimes so you can get on with the next project or process." In 1998, he had his first solo exhibition, Sleeping with Pity: A Study in Fear and Desire, at Forum + Function gallery in Raleigh. The exhibition met with positive reviews locally, and an especially glowing review in Art Papers magazine, a well-known and influential art journal.

Around this time, Fjelsted accepted a contract position at SouthPeak Interactive, a gaming division of SAS. "I had spent a good deal of time and money moving work around to exhibitions and taking care of studio rents," he says. "In the simplest terms, I was flat broke." He worked at SouthPeak as a scenic artist and began to think of the regular schedule as an advantage. "Undoubtedly, it slowed me down with fine art endeavors, but I found enough time to get the job done and still organize gallery shows."

That same year, Fjelsted's mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was struggling in the final stages of her illness. The routine of a day job was probably one of the things that prevented him from entering a severe depression. "It has taken time for me to begin to understand her death. It has changed me in ways that nothing else could," he says.

After his mother's death in February of last year, he organized an exhibition at LUMP g

allery in Raleigh, with two childhood friends, David Isenhour and Angie Thiede. The exhibition featured "The Mommymaker," and other highly personal works by the artists about childhood, family and loss.

Currently, Fjelsted is working on The Firefly Man, a four-minute film short that will combine manual puppetry, miniature sets, and state-of-the-art digital effects and sound. He sounds particularly excited when talking about the project, which tells the story of an old hermit who lives in the woods, builds metal yard sculptures, and accidentally brings them to life. While this is a commercial work, it loosely corresponds to Fjelsted's fine art work in its imagery and themes.

There's a preconception about the emerging, local artist that, predictably enough, combines aspects of the Young Artist archetype with clichéd images of the modern South. According to this notion, the artist is a semi-urban, self-styled bohemian, who is attached to his location--a downtown ghettoized under the rubric of revitalization. To make ends meet, he waits tables or pours beer at some hip restaurant or bar. He smokes American Spirits, drinks Newcastle Ale, and prefers the company of smokers and drinkers. Other likes include vintage T-shirts, ironic banter and live music (alternative-bluegrass-new wave-funk). Occasionally, he makes artworks. His work tends to be graphical or sculptural--not painterly--and conforms to a post-Pop aesthetic. He employs items and iconography from 1960s and 1970s American popular culture, so that the dominant impression is of nostalgia for childhood.

To a degree, Fjelsted matches this description, but only in superficial ways. He is far less concerned with playing the role of Young Artist, which has enabled him to move freely between commercial settings (where he can make money, and solve the problems of how to address a general audience) and private ones (where he can explore idiosyncratic images and themes).

Fjelsted is also remarkable for his willingness and ability to inhabit dissimilar environments, and to make contributions in each, at the same time that he learns something different in each, and exercises different skills. He instinctively resists the insularity of the downtown scene, and his resistance can be read as a defense of his work--of his ability to support the work's production, and of his right to evolve as an artist, on his own terms.

It seems suspect to consider Fjelsted's sexuality as something that might distinguish him as an artist, particularly since the image of the gay male artist, in America at least, has been thoroughly commodified since Warhol. Also, to talk about Fjelsted in these terms would require assertions about gay identity, and the problems inherent to that are fairly obvious. But at the same time, it seems necessary to consider his sexuality in relation to his work, because it takes such a fundamental place.

At the level of theme, his work is mainly concerned with the interconnections between authenticity, fantasy and desire. Fjelsted's work complicates the matter by observing these dynamics in terms of commodity culture and the role that homosexuality might play in the field of exchange. Popular notions of authenticity and originality--both in the sense of authorship and innovation--are challenged by the work's formal properties. He constructs his wall pieces and installations from found materials that have already been produced, and the imagery he employs is consistently derived from pre-existing sources--from animated cartoons or the family photo album. The appropriated articles do not refer back to their earlier life (as they might in a Joseph Cornell box, for example), but instead call attention to their status as commodity fetishes through their repetition and essential banality.

Fjelsted's work often refers to fairy tales, fables, and other kinds of stories that figure prominently in childhood. But the manner in which he refers to them suggests that his interest lies in the way modern institutions have controlled and defined the stories' mass circulation. He is fascinated, for instance, with the institutionalized fantasies of Walt Disney. He takes imagery from films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Pinocchio, and then deploys it out of context, in the space of his own work--a private, pent-up, immobile space--where the exchange between elements is circular and irresolvable. In doing so, he is able to reveal the way in which these fantasies are constituted by the technologies of mass reproduction, and the way in which they are designed to produce a continuous state of desire.

While Fjelsted significantly refers to narrative in his work, the work never succeeds at making narrative itself. In this respect, he alludes to the subversive potential of gay desire, when considered in relation to commodity culture. Value resides in exchanges that are not read as such, that are made to seem natural--like heterosexuality. The principal force that makes an exchange self-evident is narrative. That is, we are inclined to make a purchase once we have constructed a narrative about the desired object. So what about acts of exchange that occur outside of narrative? What about exchanges that fail to hold up against standard notions of value? Does homosexuality offer an example for how to elude structures of consumerism?

These are the kinds of questions that Fjelsted's work considers; yet they always co-exist with self-analysis and self-revelation. The installation Home Movie is telling in this respect, with the example of the artist's performance. According to Fjelsted, he often felt as a child that his gayness meant he wasn't a real boy. It is no surprise then that he was obsessed with the story of Pinocchio. By reading the story, with Pinocchio's magical conversion into human form at the end, Fjelsted was reassured that one day he too would become "real." But in Home Movie, it is Fjelsted who sacrifices his realness for the sake of the character. By embodying the puppet in flesh, he himself ensures the story's happy ending. Thus, the initial appearance of self-sacrifice is revealed as self-fulfillment, and the performance overwhelms in its poignancy.EndBlock

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