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Artist Kenneth Gerleve on Summerland: A Ghost Story

Thu, Apr 3, 2014

Kenneth Gerleve

Kenneth Gerleve

Combining cautioary tale picture books with Gothic ghost stories, local artist Kenneth Gerleve presents Summerland: A Ghost Story. The 16-panel narrative installation presents vignettes from dreams of the artist. Similar to the work of Edward Gorey, the installation is fantastically grim, yet humorous, while acknowledging death and celebrating life. Summerland is part of a larger work in progress, an experimental, serialized graphic novel, The Osiris Mechanism. Summerland features atmospheric instrumental music written and performed by local musician Ross Crean.

Gerleve earned an M.F.A. in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College Chicago and has worked as a graphic designer in marketing and advertising. He is currently the studio assistant for visual artist and author Audrey Niffenegger. His illustration and design work has been featured in previous issues of Pistil Magazine, the Journal of Artists’ Books and Little Bang.

How did you come to create this exhibit?
Last summer, I was approached by Pam Ambrose at LUMA to create an installation for the Works on Paper Gallery. Pam was looking for a local artist whose work existed in the same space as Edward Gorey’s — namely graphic narratives with a dark sense of humor — and was suggested to look up my work by Douglas Stapleton, the assistant curator of art at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery. Stapleton was familiar with my work, including my thesis exhibition, which centered on the story of a young man who is bullied for being gay. The piece has an intentionally Gothic vibe. It was this work that drew Pam’s interest.

Why did you decide to tell the story of Summerland?
Summerland: A Ghost Story is part of a larger body of work titled The Osiris Mechanism. The Osiris Mechanism is a serialized Gothic mystery novel that I have been working on for over a decade. Conceptually, I view The Osiris Mechanism as an experiment centered on storytelling and the various forms that it can take; text, image, music, books, films, theatre and installation. Thematically, it deals with questions of childhood, sexuality, memory, spirituality, religion, the occult and death. I try to temper the tendency towards being morose with humor. I felt that the story had a certain kinship with Edward Gorey’s work, both in tone and format.

Summerland focuses on one narrative thread within The Osiris Mechanism. It tells the story of the Weill family who are Spiritualists living in a house literally built for spiritual communication. The story, while completely fictional, is partially based on the George Stickney House in Bull Valley, IL.

Photo: Brittany Langmeyer.

Photo: Brittany Langmeyer.

The Loyola University Museum of Art predominantly focuses its exhibitions on works that deal with spiritual issues. Summerland and The Osiris Mechanism are ghost stories, and feature Spiritualism – the 19th Century religious movement – quite heavily. I felt that a story which highlighted this unique movement (warts and all) would be interesting to LUMA’s core audience as well as devotees of Gorey.

Why did you decide to use panels in your art to tell this story?
As the project developed, working with the space at LUMA required changes to materials and scale from how I initially envisioned the piece. In actuality, the changes brought the installation more inline with other permutations of the Osiris Mechanism. Physically, the panels are drop cloths, which are often used in old houses to shroud and protect furniture from dust. They seemed appropriate given the setting of the story. The panels also reference book pages, with image and typography relating the story to the viewer. As a maker of artist’s books, the format makes sense.

In your opinion, how does your exhibit tie in with the two Gorey exhibitions?
When I was 9 years old, my family took a vacation to Door County, Wisconsin. While on vacation, we visited a local bookstore, where I found a copy of a young adult Gothic mystery novel called The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey. Needless to say, I became hooked. For years afterwards, I sought out and devoured copies of Bellairs’ books, which were nearly always illustrated by Gorey. I also started to collect the reissued versions of Gorey’s Amphigorey anthologies and his individual books. I was devastated when both men died. In a sense, The Osiris Mechanism – and Summerland by extension – is homage to both men.

Brittany Langmeyer
StreetWise Publisher

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