Charlie Brouwer’s “Now I Lay Me … ,” at Whitespace gallery through September 1, takes its title from the children’s prayer that first appears, says Brouwer, in the New England Primer of 1737. His artist’s statement offers the precise history of a prayer that continued to terrify small children (“if I should die before I wake” and so on) far into the 20th century, and this unexpected piece of scholarship typifies the dual qualities of this show: sophisticated and endearingly simple, slightly comic and intensely serious, warmly sentimental and chillingly mystical.
The full-scale wooden sculpture of a star-adorned grand piano outside the gallery (“Wouldn’t It Be Grand?”) tips the scales toward weird whimsy, but the 30 weathered orchard ladders (“Now I Lay Me … ”) that greet the viewer on entering the gallery reverse the balance immediately. A far more emotionally intimate sculpture than the communal allegory of the 200 borrowed ladders that Brouwer erected last year in Freedom Park, these ladders mount toward the gallery ceiling, and one of them leads straight into the niche of a gallery skylight. Easily overlooked at first, a recumbent human figure is enclosed by the ladders (although its wood-block construction more resembles the shape of an Egyptian mummy coffin).
This ladder-and-man-lying-down image turns out to be the show’s repeated symbol. The 30 graphite and watercolor crayon drawings that line the walls in a very specific order are meant to take us on a journey of recollection and realization that begins in Brouwer’s childhood bedroom (“Down to Sleep: 7000 nights in a room of faith and doubt, dreams & wonder — in preparation for all that was to come”), which is depicted with light streaming through the windows as Brouwer’s adult traveler, a hat-wearing figure viewed from behind, surveys the scene. In the next drawing, a ladder glimpsed through a window at the end of an upstairs hallway moves us further along the journey: “It was only a little way … from the safety of that room up there … to that other world out there.” (These long, poetic titles are written in the margins of the drawings.)
This very quickly establishes that we are in the familiar realm of spiritual autobiography. The mystical dimension enters in the fourth drawing, with ladders reaching to heaven from a childhood church (“In those days he wondered … is my soul so small or so large, so close — or so far away that it is so hard to find, to see, and to know?”), but not before the symbol of the ladder-enclosed recumbent figure is introduced in the otherwise very literal third drawing, “Most of the time they kept their ladders in storage on their garages … safe from the rain under the eaves — ready to be taken down and used as needed.”
The sequence then moves away from Brouwer’s own life, recounting incidents from his grandfather’s biography and suddenly presenting a vision of white-outlined ladders converging in darkness on a brightly cloudlike opening in the sky (“Lay down to sleep … Awake my soul …”). The other moments of mystical transcendence are among the strongest works in the exhibition: a single upward-leading ladder rises from a roadway, with a host of ghostly ladders surrounding it (“That freedom … That letting go … Like the road out of town … When the traffic clears”); a standing figure is surrounded by a swirling vortex that becomes a succession of ladders spinning off into the sky (“When it comes down to this … there are no words that will suffice”).
This ladder symbolism is so widespread as to be fairly called universal, though Brouwer’s use of it is Christian, with titles quoted from everything from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians to the medieval mystical treatises of Meister Eckhart and “The Cloud of Unknowing.” The star-surrounded grand piano, though, is all Brouwer’s own, and it shows up more than once as a disconcertingly literal symbol for a quite immaterial inner condition: “Is it the soul that hears — that hears the music so old and deep? … so light and dark, so near and far, so familiar and so hard to join in?”
As you will have guessed, Brouwer is an extremely literate and thoughtful product of down-home origins. He notes that his 30 ladders could symbolize 30 of the heroes whose examples helped him along the way, heroes who range from theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Teilhard de Chardin to singers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen — role models for young Christians in the 1960s, all — to the improbably paired artists Agnes Martin and Anselm Kiefer, with a stop along the way at the reflectively humorous ceramist Jack Earl.
The series culminates in sunflowers (“Like flowers seeking the sun they set their hearts and minds on the light of truth Until beauty began to flood their souls … and it was good”) and in a tangle of mist-like ladders rising out of the void against the dark (“ ‘For the innermost decision, That we cannot but obey, For what’s left of our religion, I lift my voice and pray’ (L. Cohen)”).
It may be entirely appropriate that the composition and rendering of the drawings ranges from clumsy-looking to transcendentally brilliant. Brouwer plainly knows what he’s doing, and why.
Brouwer will speak at 4 p.m. Saturday, September 1.
Opening September 1 in whitespec, the gallery’s project space, is a sound installation by Matt Gilbert in collaboration with Ryan Peoples. Inspired by Brouwer’s exhibit, it will investigate American approaches to childhood education as evidenced in the primer, America’s first textbook and the source of the prayer to which Brouwer’s show owes its title. Homemade sound controllers will convert the primer’s contents — lessons based on rote memorization, strict discipline and Puritan values — into material for free play and investigation. The artists will be present.