Artspace has its ups and downs like anyplace else, but you’ve got to give the artists and administrators there a big A for consistent effort. One of the things this democratically run organization does is to organize exhibitions proposed by member artists and accepted by a relevant committee. Sometimes these flop, but often the ideas stimulating them are very good.

Such is the case with the current exhibition, The Marvels. The show was orchestrated by artists Susan Phillips and Mickey Gault, along with Artspace Program Director Corkey Goldsmith. Their vision for the show included “art that relates to historic and present-day sideshow performers–those that have overwhelming physical challenges and those that have, for whatever reason, chosen to manufacture their own talents and deformities.” It’s a cool idea, to look at the geeky, the freaky, the weirdly marvelous, and examine our own fascination with the odder manifestations of human nature.

Although the show was juried by UNC-Chapel Hill art professor Beth Grabowski from national submissions, the overall quality of the artwork on display is, unfortunately, not that great. However, there are three strong pieces that make the exhibition worth a visit.

Brett Ingram’s short video, “Freak Box,” sets the tone–literally–for the show with its spooky music. Bizarre droids and robots orchestrate the production of freakish heads conveyed continuously into the television of a placid couple watching from their couch. Ingram’s sculpting, animation and production values have all gotten very strong, and this is a trenchant work.

Tina Motley’s “High Tea” is both funny and unsettling. Her small clay sculpture is in the form of a five-legged creature with two smaller creatures riding on its back, having a tea party. Except for its extra leg, the large creature is vaguely cowlike–but its tail is a snake and its face is a man’s. It has ears on top–or are those stubby feathered wings? The small riders initially appear less odd. They look like children’s dressed-up Easter bunnies at first, but then you see that they are more of a cross between a jackrabbit and a jackass. These are the kind of mutants we may get with gene splicing.

Artspace artist Susan Phillips plays on our desire for impossible knowledge from improbable sources with her “Good Fortune: The Clairvoyant Chickenboy.” This is one of Phillips’ elaborate dioramas with paintings and objects encased in beautifully crafted stained-glass boxes. “Chickenboy” both mocks and honors the come-ons and signage of the carnival sideshow. It has an audio element that exhorts; it will take your money, and it dispenses fortunes straight from the chicken’s beak. It got my quarter, and promised me an “odd event” in my future.

Perhaps the Clairvoyant Chickenboy can see money in Artspace’s future. Former director Ann Tharrington has returned to Raleigh and is helping Artspace prepare for a capital campaign. As governmental support for the arts continues to dwindle, Artspace has found itself in a tenuous position regarding its city-owned building. At least one developer has approached the City of Raleigh about purchasing the building at the corner of Blount and Davie streets that has housed the Artspace studios and galleries since 1986. The city, to its credit, is not booting Artspace into the street, but neither is Artspace losing any time organizing to raise the $1.5 million to $2 million that will be necessary to purchase the property and create an endowment for its maintenance. As Tharrington points out, there’s a lot of money out there, but there are also lots of nonprofits asking for it–including the Contemporary Art Museum, which needs money to renovate a building it already purchased. And then there’s Goliath, the N.C. Museum of Art, which is raising big money for a major expansion. So–Raleigh, get out your checkbooks.

One Durham foundation has already gotten out its checkbook to help Artspace in another way. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation has supplied initial funding for what Artspace Executive Director Courtenay Bailey hopes will be a permanent Emerging Artist in Residence program. The program gives studio space, and later an exhibition, to a promising artist for six months. The first recipient is Andre Leon Gray, an amazingly talented and productive young man who went to Raleigh’s Enloe High and briefly attended NCCU. Gray’s “Eye Gumbo” has been on display at such venues as the Carolina Student Union, Duke’s Bryan Center and the Durham Art Guild. See his newest body of work–in which he continues to blend African symbolism and contemporary social commentary–in his studio on Artspace’s first floor. It’s another marvel. EndBlock