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Step Right Up

An artist with Chapel Hill roots humorously exposes the underbelly of the N.C. State Fair

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The inspiration for George Jenne's exhibition The Five Cent Fallen Colossus, up now at Durham's Craven Allen Gallery, came in part from his own attraction to the over-indulgent brilliance of the carnival atmosphere, but also from a friend who opted, out of curiosity, to work for three months for James E. Strates Shows Inc. (which, until last year, provided the midway attractions for the N.C. State Fair). The work was thankless and consisted mainly of assembling and reassembling, alongside drunks and ex-cons, the questionably stable, Jurassic rides to which thousands of people entrust their lives during fair season. Jenne's friend lasted two weeks in the job.

For his installation exhibit, the Brooklyn-based Jenne, who grew up in Chapel Hill, spent two days this past October taking photographs and soaking up the atmosphere at the N.C. State Fair. The fruit of his wanderings have taken the form of a series of ink brush drawings and two sculptures, "The Nickel Shrink," and "The Fallen Colossus." The drawings reproduce Jenne's photographs, without changes in color or content, or to the standard 4-inch-by-6 inch scale (though a few works are collages and, as such, are larger). Because of the small scale and the overall lack of variation in content from photo to ink wash, the drawings call into question their own purpose: Why not just display the photos? The drawings' size also forces the viewer to step close in order to study the intricacies of such meticulously rendered objects as thick piles of electric extension cords and the dozens of lights they illuminate. Such close study has the effect of pushing the rest of the exhibition out of viewing range, though, which undermines the artist's attempt to impart a carnival atmosphere.

Where atmosphere is lost, aesthetic is retained: The drawings are very good and their content is intriguing. Jenne's ink washes, in ghostly gray scales, translate well the seedy mystery of the carnival experience. In the dark tones and squalid subject matter of these images is buried a certain sadness. The absence of color silences the seething sensationalism of the fair while the content focuses on the reality of the production. One especially haunting piece depicts the back of a carnival bus. Where the rear window should be is instead a metal grate that has been partially torn away so that only the bottom half remains, exposing above the remaining half the pitch black interior of the bus. In another strangely alluring piece, a pair of conjoined twins is shown breaching the drawing's border with a black-nailed hand, to claw menacingly at its audience. Examining this work closely instills the excitement felt in the mischievous juvenile act of sneaking a peek at the freak show, and getting caught.

"The Nickel Shrink," a wooden recreation of a coin candy machine--complete with the square of fake turf on which it sits, and a giant ear resting on top surrounded by tufts of hair--boasts that, for just five cents, it will reduce your demons to a gumball-sized nugget. That's right, folks: Tell the Nickel Shrink your darkest secrets and they will roll down the slot all nice and manageable for you, ready to be buried away in your back yard.

For the show's main attraction, Jenne, who makes props for movies and television shows, has constructed "The Fallen Colossus," a 9-foot tall man built to exaggerated proportions. Resting face-down in the dimly lit back corner of the gallery, the dummy appears as if he has wandered into the gallery and passed out. His presence, amplified by a digital groan programmed to exude from within every 10 minutes or so, is not easily ignored. In fact, the "Colossus" serves as a kind of humorous imposition to those viewing the drawings. Inspired by the "World's Largest" attractions at the fair, Jenne had to special order size 17 Chuck Taylor's for this wood and wire sculpture, and hand-sew the giant corduroys that fit around his waist. Face-down, with a cigarette butt stuck to one of his shoes, the "Colossus" is a hilarious reminder of the effects of over-indulgence. Funnel cake, anyone? EndBlock

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