minor character
Bill Thelen
Through Oct. 27
Branch Gallery
401C Foster St., Durham
918-1116, www.branchgallery.com

If you stroll north of Elmo’s Diner through the semi-bustle of Durham’s Ninth Street, the pretense that you’re enjoying a promenade during a sleepy siesta will evaporate. It is at this precise location, the place where street life goes to die, that you’ll be confronted by the ghostly shell of the lonely Biscuit King. Once a purveyor of greasy Southern cuisine, the restaurant is now closed and gutted.

Before or after visiting minor character, Bill Thelen’s current exhibition at Branch Gallery, it is worth checking out the Biscuit King’s present condition. Thelen, curator of Lump Gallery in Raleigh, has taken over Branch Gallery for a solo show of varied curiosities, the most compelling of which is a scale model of the restaurant in its current circumstance of decrepitude. “Biscuit King” (2007, created with Jerstin Crosby) sits on the cement floor in the center of the gallery and demands immediate attention. (The Independent published a dispatch about the actual restaurant’s final hour in March 2004; see “Fall of the House of Biscuit King.”)

Those familiar with the actual architecture of the building will notice a peculiar discrepancy. For some reason, whether by accident or design, on the model the street-facing façade is reversed. Impeccably accurate or not, “Biscuit King” is a perfect mixture of funny/sad and offers an accessible segue into Thelen’s scattered but challengingly worthwhile universe.

And a big artistic universe it is: Thelen is all over the place, in space and media. Minor character is comprised of color pencil abstractions, childish watercolors, voyeuristic video clips and a seemingly non sequitur found object. And there is “Soda Cans” (2007), aesthetically pleasing piles of blank aluminum cans that somehow simultaneously mock and celebrate Warhol’s take on consumer culture.

It would be easy to come to the conclusion that minor character is nothing more than an assortment rummaged haphazardly from Thelen’s cache, and that might just be the case, but if you spend time inhabiting the environment that Branch Gallery has been converted into, you’ll likely pick out some method to the artist’s madness.

For example, it’s interesting to consider the arrangement of the given space: Heaven’s Gate” (2007), a large wall painting of brash striped verticals (the title references the West Coast suicide cult), serves as a shimmering background for the Biscuit King replica. And across from “Heaven’s Gate,” on a parallel wall, are untitled colored pencil drawings that stream like crazy neon binary code. The effect of these abstract color works is subtle but brilliant, creating an ethereal color vibration chamber that is sure to facilitate Biscuit King’s pending ascension through the gates of the beyond. The before-mentioned soda cans are similarly arranged to complement the other works and make the visitor aware that the artist regards this exhibition as an occupation of the entire galleryif not a full-blown insurrection like the Perjovschi graffiti presently adorning the atrium glass at the Nasher Museum.

Considering the pieces individually, it becomes apparent that Thelen’s work is riddled with “minor characters,” those who might only serve supporting roles in their own lives. Most of them are men. In fact, the only personalities that get fleshed out to any degree are masculinebut masculine in modes uncelebrated by the dominant culture (homosexual, balding, aging, hairy-backed). “Silver Daddy” (2007) is a rendering of a downcast curmudgeon who carries himself like an impotent high school gym coach. “Roy Garrett” (2007), a tongue-in-cheek AIDS quilt, is a strangely touching homage to a fallen gay porn actor. The singular female, “Girl with Wig” (2007), is lacking a face. Besides the nebulous hairpiece, her only distinguishing feature is crudely glossed lips.

Thelen appears to be an artist preoccupied with numerous obsessions and personal peccadilloes. One of his untitled works even transmits the message “I No Longer Adore You”certainly a phrase only remembered by the person on the receiving end of rejection. Thelen is allowing us to glimpse his pathos, but he’s claiming it as his own. Either that or he’s a master of deception. The questions remain: How funny does he find all this? And can we laugh with him?

Ultimately, it’s through idiosyncratic and sometimes opaque outposts that Thelen arrives at universal themes of alienation and existential crisis. In minor character, the vision is bleak, but so are many aspects of the world that we’ve created for ourselves. Not talking about it is hell.