Sleeping like a baby

Dreamlife of Babies poses intriguing question

Ralph Gilbert's new show at Fay Gold Gallery ponders the tantalizing question of what, exactly, babies' brains are up to during their blissed-out slumbers. This Maurice Sendak storybook hypothesis is at the center of the Georgia State University professor's show, The Dreamlife of Babies, an enchanting procession of large oil paintings (the biggest at an immensely scaled 56 X 62 inches) rendered in smudged, murky earth tones: rusts, mustard yellows and twilight indigos, with occasional flashes of crimson as if to indicate the sudden, violent firing of an infant synapse.

Not only the subject matter, but the execution of Gilbert's images, is fancifully psychological. An obviously keen observer of the baby physique, Gilbert acutely renders the funny bunched up postures or the impossibly sprawled out, drunken wino look of their repose. He captures with exquisite veracity the clenched concentration of babies at rest: their almost ferocious devotion to the task at hand, as if the memory of the womb's cramped quarters still haunts them. In their amorphous baby-fleshiness, Gilbert's infants often assume the partially formed shapes of fetuses and suggest in utero as another mysterious dreamtime whose contours parents can hardly presume to imagine.

The babies in Gilbert's dark and dreamy paintings often clutch babydolls of their own, like castaways hugging a life raft far out to sea. Their dreams are often filled with cherubs or fairies or other babies, as if obsessively fantasizing about their own kind in slumberland. Figures and forms hover above their sleeping bodies, and windows in the background suggest either actual views or the cinematic screen dreams of the napping children.

There is an air of Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen improbability to the events in Gilbert's paintings, where friendly stuffed animals or picture book fairies turn into fearsome apparitions or dreamworld guides. Babies sleep in tight clusters, a mass of tiny bodies, or form small mountain ranges in "Night Light" with their slumbering, supine forms, or in "Touch the Moon" are rendered as an abstract tangle of baby parts.

Images like "The Babysitter," of a baby in red romper dozing next to the blue-tinted glow of a television set, suggest either a mild social commentary of the boob tube as companion or, by the open book left on the floor, a cursory narrative of a sitter engaged in some other pursuit while her young charge sleeps.

In his cryptically narrative oil paintings, Gilbert suggests a tangle of sensual associations in these seemingly still and restful compositions. Recognizing that even the pre-verbal baby must dream of the sounds and images that drench her waking moments, Gilbert attempts to render the array of stimuli that might invade a baby's dreams: the white noise of a television program or the sound of a piano playing in "Bedtime Story." Gilbert endows scenes of perfect, uncorrupted innocence — the blissful peace of a baby's sleeping form — with a slightly eerie vision as in "Night Ride's" troubling fantasia of a nude, sleeping infant with her head blissfully secure on a pillow, even as her lower half straddles some mythic pig-bear hobgoblin guided by an envoy of fairies.

Such work acknowledges the complex psyches and imaginations brewing beneath those cherub masks that must set anxious parents' minds wandering. When a small child sleeps, they are outside their parents' protective dominion and, thus, conceivable for the first time as separate, autonomous entities. Just as babies must one day reckon with their uniqueness from their parents, parents must at many stages in their child's progression see indications that their flesh has grown a mind and a will of its own.

Gilbert's works are moodily atmospheric in the manner of erudite children's books, and his paintings, with their subdued color palette and often surreal bent, give free range to a vision of childhood rarely seen in a culture of Happy Meals, Disneyland and sundry Styrofoam cutenesses.

Gilbert's work strives, with notable success, to evoke a child's world, but it also works to convey for viewers some sensory connection to these experiences, as in "Sleepover." In this painting of a towheaded child fully dressed and sleeping by an open window, the usual inky nighttime darkness of Gilbert's images is substituted with a piercing daylight perceived through the picture window. Shards of color that blend with the distant sky burst like flames from the surface of the child's body, as if he is radiated by the feel of sunlight on his dozing form. In this and other ways, Gilbert invests a simple act with a sense of reverie and magic, endowing what might appear to be ordinary events with the electric sensations and wildfire imagination that govern young children's lives.

Gilbert's is the first show at Fay Gold's new larger Miami Circle location and marks a change of tack for the gallery, as well as for the Atlanta art world. Located in the heart of Buckhead since 1980, the gallery's recent move was prompted in part by escalating rents. But "not solely" says new gallery director Amy Miller. "The area was becoming more and more bar oriented." The gallery now occupies a more sedate nook more often frequented by the well-heeled parents of Buckhead party animals in a complex of home decor emporiums, antique shops and a sprinkling of galleries and restaurants in the Miami Circle complex.

The Dreamlife of Babies runs through Sept. 10 at Fay Gold Gallery, 764 Miami Circle. 404-233-3843. Tues.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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