There’s something I find particularly appealing about artists whose works are as much feats of strength (be it mental, physical or otherwise) as they are valuable contributions to the form. Contemporary artist Charles Clary is a fine example, not simply due to his steady and capable hands (though that’s part of it), but mostly because of the gargantuan level of mental and physical endurance required to pull off Be Kind Rewind, an “immersive solo exhibition” that ran at Paradigm Gallery here in South Philadelphia last summer.
I haven’t delved too deeply into Clary’s other works, and honestly, I wouldn’t hold it against him if this was all he’s ever done in his entire life thus far. Here’s the premise: after scouring thrift stores and yard sales for VHS tapes, he’d slice their boxes into psychedelic new shapes alongside fifteen additional layers of colored paper (per box), enhancing the covers with dramatic, three-dimensional effects. He did this for one hundred different tapes. Crazy, right? Who would sit there and do this one hundred times, that must’ve taken a couple months at least! Actually, impressive as that would be, I’m just messing with you - the man made ONE THOUSAND of these! My hands curl up into shriveled monkey paws at the mere suggestion of cutting fifteen thousand pieces of paper, let alone carefully and intricately. Just last week, an artist friend of mine told me she had to throw up after cutting a particularly intense set of stencils, so exhausting was the work, and I believe it. One hundred and fifty paper-cuttings seems like the sort of quantity I’d need a dose of elephant-grade CBD to accomplish, let alone one hundred times that! The idea of writing a book can feel like an impossible achievement, but here’s Clary, writing a small library’s worth of books by comparison.
It’s an intense accomplishment, for sure, but it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the work wasn’t so strong. Any one of these boxes are great - some are particularly inspired - but taken as a whole the exhibition can only be described in the words of Juno Birch: stunning. As much as I want to convince myself I am above the lazy warmth of nostalgia, its pull has been mighty strong as of late, and seeing all these tapes lined up together provides a pleasant rush of the past. I grew up going to video stores (and video-rental sections of supermarkets), and there’s something about all those covers lined up that is inherently appealing to someone as poisoned by advertising as me. What makes it even more fun is Clary’s expert eye for uncovering the existential horror that quietly lurks in these designs, his rich and curvy shapes throwing a movie as innocuous as Dumb & Dumber into a sinisterly supernatural relief. This technique works best with horror, the primary genre of this collection, but I prefer the movies from which you’d least expect psychic violence to emanate, like An American Tail or Anchorman. As he was willing to work with multiple copies (in this sort of endeavor you surely take what you can get), I’ve had fun looking at his various takes of the same movie, too. It’s clear that Clary’s eye catches hidden angles mine would never spot, and in the case of A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, it’s incredible that the one on the right wasn’t the official design. Creepy!
I needed to own one of these, and at one hundred dollars a pop, it was doable1. You can imagine the difficulty of making the perfect choice, and trust me, I labored over it for a while before ultimately deciding on Falling Down, the iconic Joel Schumacher / Michael Douglas white-entitlement thrill-ride. I love that movie, and Clary does right by it, surrounding Douglas’s William Foster with a cloudlike vortex, lending a physical palpability to the character’s toxic nature. I picked it up in person last August and I’ve been admiring it ever since!
There are still apparently over eight-hundred left at the Paradigm site if you’re interested!