Let's start with a call for action: go see Atomic Elroy's (aka Tom McElroy) video installation, MomWow, at Phototroph Gallery. It's simple, graceful, funny, deeply felt and wholly unexpected. It's a clever, quirky, strange and surprisingly moving tour de force. It's about the artist's mother, Mary Elizabeth Sinclaire, who died this year, having lived her allotted span of threescore and 10 years, plus a few more. It's a eulogy, an obituary, a remembrance and a meditation upon death.
Entering the gallery, there are eight video monitors, some with headphones for sound, playing looped tapes of Mary and her life. Each one is somewhat different, but each shows primarily images of Mary in old age, talking to the camera, her face lined and tired, the ravages of age clearly apparent. In one monitor, the image has been solarized, so that Mary's face is burnt and blackened, the flesh fragile and evanescent, as if she were at the very border between life and death. Ragged words crawl gently down the screen; they're the words of her eulogy, as delivered by the artist, her son, at her funeral.
Across the room, the camera moves slowly from faded photograph to faded photograph, captioned by a screen crawl. There's a black-and-white photo of a radiant girl, Mary (then known as Betty) at 16, in the long white dress of a beauty queen. Then there are shots of family, of friends, of children, of Mary with her second husband -- time's remainders, what's left of a finished life. Words appear on the screen; first "This," then "This is" followed by "This is a," slowly building a simple sentence. It's a sentence that tells us what we're seeing -- a family album from which one person will, from now on, be forever absent. Each word seems to represent a year, a photograph, a life built, treasured, remembered, and then lost.
Look at Mary's album. Don't you see your mother, your sister, yourself? Don't you see your family, the artless Christmas photographs, the friend of a friend whose name is unremembered? Look at Mary's husband Reggie Sinclaire, who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I, resplendent in his big fur coat.
McElroy's work, so aggressively modern in execution, is really not modern at all. It's not in the mainstream of this century, or even of the last century. In spirit and conception, if not in execution, it's wholly rooted in the 19th century, when artists saw time, death, family and friendship as part of a seamless whole.
John Greenleaf Whittier's great elegiac poem, "Snowbound," written 138 years ago, still speaks to us, just as Atomic Elroy's installation does:
O Time and Change! with hair as gray
As was my sire's that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!
Ah, brother! only I and thou
Are left of all that circle now...
Those lighted faces smile no more...
But in the sun they cast no shade
No voice is heard, no sign is made...
Green hills of life that slope to death.
Few schools teach the 19th-century poets nowadays. But 65 years ago, when Mary was a child, she might have memorized those very lines.
-- John Hazlehurst
A video installation by Atomic Elroy
Phototroph Gallery, the Depot Arts District (heading west on Colorado Avenue from downtown, turn right off the bridge)
Open Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., weekdays by chance or appointment
Call 442-6995 or visit www.phototroph.com