“Fearsome Fable–Tolerable Truth,” the immersive, double-sided mural that lines the Hyde Park Art Center’s Gallery 4 is really two shows in one. Depending on your mood, you might confront either a smog-laden, fossil-fueled wasteland or a verdant, solar-powered paradise, as the painting’s composite sections can be carefully flipped by hand.
Artist Tom Torluemke conjures these contrary worlds with an abbreviated, just-the-facts style of brushwork consistent with the classic WPA murals that inspired this endeavor. The surfaces aren’t highly refined, but they don’t need to be. Like any mural, a respectable viewing distance yields the best results; imperfections vanish and color and form crackle with life.
Occupying the gallery’s center, eight jet-black Picassoid sculptures erupt from Torluemke’s scorched Earth and provide the show’s most satisfying moments. The dead birds, anguished figures and ominously perched vultures are simultaneously graceful and disturbing. These pieces are particularly affective in contrast to the luminous blue-green of the artist’s Shangri-La. But when paired with his perdition’s severity, they transform the space into a real bad-trip nightmare.
Because it deals with socio-ecological issues, “Fearsome Fable” runs the risk of coming off as either a naively utopian Kumbaya moment or tendentious jeremiad. Luckily, the project gets away with being a little of both, without going completely over the top. Cryptic depictions of domestic abuse, suicidal children and chain-smoking health nuts smartly temper the corporate-sponsored Arcadian dream-world. Meanwhile, the red-skied anti-Eden of crowded cities, emptied oceans and mountains-without-tops has its own austere beauty.
That Torluemke has assumed the Delphic mantle of artist as sage and created work that doesn’t just feel like an episode of Captain Planet should be an object lesson to a younger generation of artists. It’s possible to have visually arresting, purposeful art that isn’t simply a vehicle for axe grinding and pet causes. (Alan Pocaro)
Through April 28 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell.