Fall 2008

Lost Inside the Rabbit Hole

By Emily Cohen —

Barry Moser should have been a travel agent. Entering the illustrator’s exhibit in the Schick Art Gallery was like stepping through a portal into another world. His creative interpretations of story characters depict familiar figures like Alice and Dorothy in unfamiliar manners.

The exhibit opened with pictures from “Alice in Wonderland,” starting with the never-ending tunnel and moving on to the Mad Hatter and the perpetually late Rabbit. Although already spewing inanities in the book itself, there is an added element of the bizarre present in Moser’s illustration. Equally unsettling is the Rabbit in the next frame, looking more severe and intense than I had ever imagined him to be. The disturbing quality the picture leaves seems to be a connection to the feeling of utter insanity Alice might have felt upon seeing a rabbit fully dressed and spluttering; yet it seems as if she takes the matter more as one of wonder. The aura of darkness surrounding the illustrations is a more sinister angle than the story is generally viewed through. From there, the pictures only become more ominous. The wood engraving entitled “The Reverie of Alice’s Sister” depicts the girl as rather elusive. Her eyes are not in sight, and she seems to be frozen in some slow act of motion, as her hair is floating through the air and her arms are up. A shadow cuts across her face and she is not smiling; merely looking out of the frame at the viewer, suggesting observation.

While the “Alice” pictures focused on the details of the character’s faces, other illustrations moved into the realm of shadow, as in the two drawings “The Last Judgment: And I Shall Make All Things New” and “When He Created the Heavens, I Was There.” The only recognizable character is a sinister-looking Jesus figure, and a crowd of vapid looking skeletons surrounds him. A dark character present in both pictures is a mysterious woman entirely encased in shadow, with outstretched wings and a battle helmet obscuring any possible view of her face. Her presence is intriguing; both her seemingly dark nature and the leering skeletons are interesting companions to the Messiah.

With his tendency to draw the eerie, one may imagine Moser with a formidable personality. However, the display’s description characterizes Moser as a “big bear of a man” and his light-hearted demeanor drew forth many a hearty laugh from the packed crowd during his talk when he visited Skidmore as the Twentieth Annual Fox-Adler lecturer on September 25.

One of his many anecdotes covered the process he employed to create his view of the monster Frankenstein. With his daughter, Moser took the skin from chicken legs and sewed them together. He used this makeshift facial skin to cover a human skeleton he had in his studio, and morphed together a sort of lopsided, grinning, grotesque monster. Scarecrow-style, Moser related watching the makeshift Frankenstein decompose in his backyard, noting the maggots, rotting, and all. Rather than induce disgust, the entire process influenced his decision to “use warm color as a sort of metaphor for the empathy I [he] felt for him,” he said.

Indeed, Frankenstein is the only character Moser used color for. The exhibit showcases a row of ten images of the monster, all of his face, or at least various parts of it. The progression of pictures changes in both color and portion of face drawn. The first nine are all done in warm tones, moving from earthy greens to warm oranges, capturing an idea of the monster’s innocence and freshness to the world, which is striking against the hideously gaping face. The last few images lose this purity and the monster takes on a disillusioned, dissatisfied look. The eighth picture is the first time a viewer sees both eyes, and most of the face is present. The next picture is a shot solely of the eyes. They are a grey-blue, but still not cold; they are full of emotion and weariness. The last picture is colored an icy blue, and the face is pushed to the side. The monster’s mouth is open, in a vacant and expressionless manner, perhaps suggesting Frankenstein’s death. Through the images Moser has perfectly conveyed his empathy for Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, leaving the viewer with a resounding feeling of remorse and meaning. The end of the monster makes for a fitting end of the exhibit.