Death is not the end

Dead’s Town at RayRay is ‘one big, delightfully absurd party’

RayRay is a ghost town in July during <i>Dead’s Town</i> exhibit.

RayRay is a ghost town in July during Dead’s Town exhibit.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Dead’s Town, showing at RayRay Gallery through July 31. Special night of music Friday, July 29, 8 p.m., featuring interpretations of songs from Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.
RayRay Gallery
530 Broadway

Stepping into the hazy otherworld of Dead’s Town, currently on display at the RayRay Gallery, one begins to understand what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote that “dying is a wild night and a new road.” Dead’s Town is the unearthly conjuring act of artists Janae Lloyd and Melanie MacTavish, and is a both reverent and rather charming consideration of artist as medium between this life and whatever comes next. For all its morbid conceptual preoccupations with the afterlife, Dead’s Town doesn’t seem grim, exactly. It traffics quite explicitly in the gothic terrain of death and pathos, but there is a soft undercurrent of humor in this show’s dealings with loss and the unknown that is distinctly life-affirming.

At the Friday, July 8, opening-night event, the gallery had been transformed into something like a stage set for a Tennessee Williams or Thornton Wilder-era play. Faded floral sheets crafted a lowered ceiling, and sanguine French love songs drifted from the stereo. With clever, cheeky touches like a self-serve photo booth available for use, the gathering was half a genuine, fussily planned parlor-room cocktail hour, half dreamy theater. It is clear that, like Blanche Dubois, the artists desire a little drama and romance in their space, preferring a handkerchief over a lamp to the bare bulb.

Also like Dubois, all the noteworthy little charms they use are touched by an unraveling, unnerving madness. Upon closer inspection the darling floral sheets bear cigarette burns. The lamp coverings are likely to be decorated with dead animal parts. Each detail in the space tells its own small story of love and decay. They raise questions of what kinds of burns or scars we all carry over from relationships that have fallen apart, or loved ones we’ve lost, and perhaps even how these individual scars can become universal experiences that bind us all together at one big, delightfully absurd party.

The stories we tell ourselves to deal with loss are really central to the artists’ work here. MacTavish’s primary medium is photography, and she creates tableaux of friendly, furry animals that have, well, passed on, animating and conserving them forevermore. This whole conceit may seem rather grotesque, but photography itself has a long legacy of being used as a tool to preserve. MacTavish brings a bit of surrealist comicality to this practice of memorial portraiture.

Memorial portraiture could fall under the category of Memento mori, essentially any and all art concerned with mortality. Memento mori extends far back into the history of art, and this history is certainly alluded to again in the imagery created by Lloyd.

“The Captain” by Melanie MacTavish

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Lloyd, who works with paper cut outs and illustrations, references the icons of celebrations like the Day of the Dead, but with personal touches that recontextualize its popular flower and skull iconography. Adding text to her cut-outs and drawings, Lloyd creates tiny short stories with fragmented phrasings that read like pieces of a dry and self-deprecating break-up letter. “I Made a List of Things I Regret Not Doing for You” is one gem among many.

The works of Dead’s Town are meant to make viewers feel as though they have been transported to another space, not heaven or hell, just somewhere they can contemplate the comic fragility of life and its utterly fleeting riches and hardships. It gives one room for appreciating loves and loves-gone-by. Peering into these finely crafted portraits together on the night of the opening, gallery-goers murmured to each other in hushed, secretive tones, occasionally giggled, smiled to themselves and huddled closely as though conspiring. It was a special collective feeling evoked by an especially thoughtful show. Walking away one feels less horrified by thoughts of impermanence, then closer to appreciating the great weirdness of life.