The terror downstairs

Gallery installation aims to give horror-film caliber goosebumps

09/12/2012 10:00 PM

By PHIL MOREHART
Contributing Writer

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Night Witch, an art installation at the Sub-Mission gallery, aims to replicate the feelings of dread in a horror movie.
Courtesy BRITTANY PYLE

The Mission Gallery on Chicago Avenue in West Town has an easy vibe.

Itís a tight, but airy space with high ceilings. Half-walls break the room.

The current exhibition on display, GUILTY!, is a collection of large, digitally manipulated, mug shot-like photos by Argentine artist Marcelo Grosman, each rendered in bright neon colors. The day-glow negates the mysterious, menacing impact intended by the artist, but it does add to the galleryís light ambiance.

Everything is tidy here. Neat. Perfect in presentation.

And boring.

The Mission strives to expose work by contemporary Latin American artists. Itís a mission that should be applauded. With GUILTY!, however, The Mission transforms into just another non-descript gallery displaying another non-descript collection of work ó an average face in a crowd of hundreds throughout the city. It feels safe. Easy.

Until you walk down into the basement. Into the Sub-Mission.

The Missionís small basement is devoted to site-specific installation pieces by emerging Chicago-based artists. Itís a small space. Extended hands can touch the ceiling. Itís cramped. Claustrophobic. And itís the perfect setting for the Sub-Missionís inaugural installation.

The piece, titled Night Witch, is a moment caught in time and terror.

Influenced by horror cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, artist Brittany Pyle attempts to recreate the foreboding tension and unease that lingers in the moments before terror strikes in these films. She succeeds.

Descending the wooden stairs, one enters a basement transformed into the bedroom of a teenage girl. Itís a timeless room filled with ephemera spanning generations. The bed is fresh and tidy, but undergarments sit haphazard atop. A dresser is piled with perfumes old and new. Vintage dresses hang on the walls. A stuffed chair sits across from a television screening cryptic loops. Horror magazines from the 1960s lay on a table.

Itís a typical girlís room, but itís not right.

Itís dim, lit only by the television and a lone lamp. Music plays, but itís askew. A close listen reveals that itís a jumbled, warped rendering of Tammy Wynetteís ďStand By Your Man.Ē An intense, uncomfortable energy inhabits this room. Something has happened. Or will happen soon.

Pyle cites John Carpenterís horror classic, Halloween, as an important influence. The filmís stamp is strong in Night Witch, along with every other horror film that pits women against (mostly male) slashers. More than likely, each of these films shares pin-drop moments that find women caught in dangerous spaces while an unseen hell waits behind a locked door or outside of a closed window. Night Witch is that moment condensed.

Night Witch straddles interesting intersections of observation and participation, as well.

For every girl who gets murdered at the hands of a horror film slasher, there is a Jamie Lee Curtis who escapes unscathed. Voyeuristically observing the belongings of the absent teenage girl who calls Night Witch home, one wonders where her fate lies.

Did she escape? Or is she already dead?

Conversely, Night Witch thrusts viewers into the minds of both the girl and her tormentor. We become unknowing victim and cold killer simultaneously as we move through the space, processing information to live and kill.

Which dress shall I wear tonight? The wire hangers holding those dresses can skewer. I canít wait to climb into bed later. Is she hiding under there? Did a noise come from the closet? Is she hiding in there?

The multiple perspectives bring another level of dread to Night Witch. A dread produced by too much information.

The room forebodes danger. It tells us that a young girl may get hurt or even killed. And we can do nothing about it because weíve seen it through the eyes of her killer.

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