“It’s a voyage of discovery for me,” he says. “I don’t have a schedule in mind. You cross a river by putting your foot in and looking for stones to step on. I look at things and see what they suggest. It unfolds as it goes.”
In Bolotin’s world, art is untrammeled by category. This internationally recognized Cincinnati-based artist creates stories by making drawings, bas-reliefs, music and films. The current form of what will become the second section of the Jackleg Testament trilogy spills across gallery walls in an installation he calls “Leaves from a Cast Paper Novel.” It consists of 33 drawings from an illustrated manuscript, the manuscript and cast paper pieces.
Jackleg Testament: Part One, an animated film composed from woodcuts (disassembled and digitally reassembled) is on view in a small gallery space. It took six years to complete. Jackleg Two is on its way to being a film as well, but meanwhile it explodes in whatever medium its maker cares to put his hand to.
Bolotin’s storytelling, he has said previously, forms “a parallel story or commentary on the Torah,” a description that underplays the endlessly inventive, slyly irreverent, wildly imaginative tenor of his text. The entryway at Solway introduces Woman in the Burning Boat in a plaster bas-relief. She is headless, without clothes, and stands in a skiff with a classically antique bow. A woodcut depicts “The Tea Cup Ride,” an element of a carnival we’ll hear more about farther on. Plaster rats escape from a frieze and swarm across a wall. Dead ahead, dominating the space, is a plaster relief 7 feet high of the narrator, looking spruce, and the Willing Girl.
She is called that, it needs to be said, because she can will things to happen.
What’s going on here? To find out, more or less, turn left into a large gallery in which 27 meticulous graphite drawings are set off by hand-lettered text that is not only beautifully and lovingly executed but also forms marvelous shapes that swoop and arc across the walls. It took Bolotin a week to complete the lettering.
The story begins in the grand literary tradition of pretending it’s something it’s not. Purporting to be “Excerpts from the (formerly) lost manuscript of Benjamin Weill. Restored and Drawn by Jay Bolotin,” a complicated storyline is quickly off and running. The Woman in the Burning Boat is there, along with the carnival, a Free Puppet Show and a preacher who speaks at length in his native tongue: “Duh voice uh Gawd — yaway hisself — hath entered my brow and creases it Deep …” In notes that chronicle “aberrations in the manuscript,” we’re told that although Weill draws on a “known tradition in the mountains of Kentucky” with the Woman Who Paints Portraits of Dead Children, he in fact “never lived in the United States,” having emigrated from his native France to Cuba, where he died.
(Bolotin, though he descended from 16 generations of Lithuanian rabbis — “or so my Grandma Hannah told me,” he says — was born in Fayette County, Ky.)
Despite the sheer visual pleasure of looking at these words on the walls, they are not an easy read. Wordplay is rampant: I am glad to know of the Sardonic Sea and in connection with the Free Puppet Show it is heartening to learn that disbelief is “temporarily hoisted from its suspension up into the fly-space.”
There are two stories, separated by a bolt of lightning straight out of the Old Testament and drawn down the wall. The puppet show takes place in the first one. And in the second, Enoch — son of the only Jewish coal miner in Kentucky — visits the state’s Institute for Criminally Insane and the Slightly Upset in the company of Claire Cecilia Claire (3c for short). We also meet Mr. Sousaphone Man, a former vaudeville actor turned wilderness guide, and others. In the drawings, these people are mostly thick-bodied, long-nosed, deep-eyed and non-smiling, set off by Bolotin’s splendidly definitive lines.
The leaves from a cast-paper novel, promised by the show’s title, aren’t seen until the final gallery. They are gorgeous. A whiteness as pristine as fresh snow is set off by shadow, through sensitively installed lighting that picks out these three-dimensional surfaces and brings them to life. Our old friend the Woman in the Burning Boat is here again, and Enoch features in a large work exploring, so it says, “The Circular Nature of Enoch’s Dilemma.”
In three or four years Jackleg Testament: Part Two will be finished, Bolotin says. Then there’s Jackleg Testament: Part Three.
“They take six, seven, 10 years each. You wonder how many decades you have left,” says the artist, who is 61.
“But time serves me well,” he adds. “It’s like a chisel or a paint brush.”
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