Visual Arts - Full moon rising

Landscapes shows a folk artist fully embracing the vision thing

Self-taught Athens-based artist John Moon creates artwork with a human touch as immediate and intimate as flesh pressed to flesh or whispered confessions. A janitor by day, the artist moonlights as a visionary.

Moon is a treasured local resource for Athens painters who have trooped over the years to his studio/apartment to pay homage to his vision. Three of those artists — Sunaura Taylor, David Wallace and Drék Davis — clearly enraptured by Moon's vision, curated his installation, Landscapes, at the Arts for All Gallery.

Translated to a gallery setting, Moon doesn't disappoint.

Some art forms suffer in translation — graffiti art for one, folk art being another — their life drained away when hemmed in by white walls. But Moon's vision is heady and concentrated and takes over the space it occupies rather than suffering from the space taking it over.

The best folk art environments operate on a level of intense, all-systems-go sensory overload, and Moon delivers just that kind of emotional and sensory intoxication. Moon's vision of utopia in paper and paint radiates an essential goodwill and hopefulness missing from our jaded times.

To create his completely consuming, enveloping environment, Moon has decorated the gallery top to bottom like the world's best father throwing down the most brilliant birthday party ever. Every wall, floor and surface of the gallery has been covered with paper marked with lashes of paint, with photocopied images culled from books and with Moon's heartfelt poems — as terse, potent and emotion-drenched as his visual art. Moon's abstract sculptures hang in corners, made from artfully shredded and painted plastic milk jugs. Garlands of multicolored construction paper festoon the gallery walls.

But the most arresting feature of the installation is its yellow-brick-road dimension, and a sense that the artist is leading you someplace very specific. The layout of the gallery plays a key role: a long corridor ending in a bigger, windowed space.

As you amble down a walkway of colorfully decorated cardboard "bricks," you are joined by groups of milk-jug characters that Moon calls "moon dolls." Covered with colorful construction paper, the moon dolls wear variously pensive or expectant expressions and milk-jug caps around their necks like buttons or jewelry.

The moon dolls — and you — move toward a vignette in the distance where there is a kind of campfire made of paper-wrapped sticks and a small house decorated with images of jazz musicians and black preachers and other icons of African-American transcendence. In Moon's hands, that space in the distance becomes emblematic of other sanctuaries: the sanctuary of an artist's vision, or of an afterlife.

While it is clear that Moon's work is informed by his own identity as an African-American man, his vision is remarkably inclusive and global, linking past, present and future, human, animal and insect. His photocopied images feature wholesome, bright and well-groomed people including, but not limited to, Native Americans, elderly bearded grandfathers, evangelical black ministers, Jewish families and Asian ones, grizzled explorers, and beetles, panthers and polar bears. There are themes of exploration, of African-American heritage and of beleaguered American values of tolerance and inclusion.

It's probably best to steal away to Landscapes alone, without companions or a timeframe. The connection to Moon's art benefits from solitude and quiet and a direct and immediate exchange.

If you want to fully enter Moon's head space, you need to take your shoes off when you get to the landscape lying at the end of that pathway, the better to peek inside the doorway of the house and eyeball his world up close.

Just feeling the cool paper and having to walk delicately so as not to tear or injure Moon's metaphorical paradise feels like an act of necessary reverence.

Because, like all ideal visions of a better world, Moon's is a fragile one.

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