Jennifer Cawley’s encaustic paintings in “Down the Rabbit Hole: The Influence of the Strange and the Familiar” fulfill the show’s subtitle perfectly. Everything in them (at Emily Amy Gallery through October 23) looks deceptively familiar, and everything is strange.
Take, for example, “We See What We Want to See,” where dotted lines connect the eager gaze of a vintage-children’s-book boy on a horse to floating bubbles containing a light bulb, a butterfly, an airplane and a house, but not to the autumn scene surrounding him.
This theme of overlooked perceptions continues in “Other Things to Consider” (above), where oval portraits of a monkey and a duck emerge from a house on one branch, while a family portrait of a formally dressed woman appears on the branch extending from the chimney.
The general metaphor of a world made strange by new scientific knowledge and kept familiar only by an act of willful forgetting is carried onward in “Big Bang” (above), where a baby, a chimpanzee, a little boy meeting a little girl and the X of a chromosome all emerge from a gigantic flower.
A pencil drawing of the chassis of a motor vehicle appears below the colorful array. The metaphoric explosiveness suggested here is much more than the burst of energy that physics tells us began our universe.
“Good Clean Fun” (left) seems to add themes of genetic mutation. It’s a scene dominated by vapor billowing from the towers of a nuclear power plant, within which clouds a population emerges that seems to be dominated by little girls with tails, while a top-hatted Victorian gentleman appears to have acquired an ear trumpet as a permanent appendage.
Cawley’s aesthetic is like a mash-up of steampunk sci-fi with children’s books circa 1930-1950. The imagery is inventively composed and irresistibly charming — and Cawley’s use of color contrasts is utterly captivating.
But as we follow her vintage-illustration children through their tangled world of “Promises,” where a girl chewing a carrot and a boy peering through a telescope watch such events as a biplane scattering leaflets and a musical score emerging from an industrial pipe, we may begin to feel unsettled. Cawley renders a world that is recognizably the one we live in, but in the way she reveals it to us, we may begin to wonder if we, like Alice, have fallen down the rabbit hole into a Wonderland somewhere in between Lewis Carroll’s and the darker one of Tim Burton’s recent movie.
However, the “in between” is what matters. Cawley’s trip down the rabbit hole owes nothing to Burton or anybody else, and the originality of her vision is what makes this new body of work so seductively significant.