By Tricia Michelberry


I hate dolls. What's more grim than babies made of plastic? Certainly nothing could be more unnerving than a doll's face, its blank and perpetual cheer, its inert gaze and terrible terrible indifference. Given the innate creepiness of dolls, not to mention the irritating tendency of artists to over-rely on "disturbing" imagery, it would seem easy to dismiss, or at least dislike, Terry Towery's latest series—portraits of some rotting, flaking dolls he found in a pile on the street.

Instead, these pieces are more likely to enchant with their weird charisma and hypnotic depth of feeling. True, they're predictably spooky at first. They're unsettling. They're grotesque. But those impressions quickly turn into mist, lift from the canvas, and vanish, burned off by the sheer visual and psychological complexity of the portraits. Towery's images are, perhaps, best defined by how meaning constantly dissolves into them and re-emerges as something else.

The dolls are writ large on the walls in these portraits—the biggest measuring 4' x 5' but their presence is strangely intimate, due in part to a subtle interplay of surfaces. Towery starts with huge digital prints of photographs, which in the transfer process bubble and warp like water wrinkled by a light wind. Over this, he spatters rusted iron filings (“I have to water my paintings”), earth-toned paints, encaustic, and charcoal briquette crushed to a powder. These distortions and textures subdue the harsher colors of the prints, creating a dim, luminous, amniotic environment in which the images float. It is hard to discern whole forms, but what is apparent in these disembodied wombs is the presence of not just birth but death too, not only growth but also decay.

The skin of each doll's face is fragmented beyond recognition, the shell of identity shattered, and something featureless is emerging from beneath: Death? The soul? The victory of nothingness? The formlessness that underlies form? These are babies adrift in placental space, at once fetal and ancient, not yet born but already dying. Your heart goes out to them. As you stand before them, the surface of these portraits becomes the surface of your own primitive memory, a foreshortened glimpse of your whole existence and how it began to disintegrate the moment it appeared. It is as though you have closed your eyelids to view the veined and private and haunting images there.

Still, though you may recognize something about these dolls, you cannot identify who they were or, more to the point, exactly what they are trying to tell you. It seems as though you have been in conversation with them. You try to remember what you were talking about. The dolls might be listening, or they might be replying. It's hard to tell, because reality is unravelling in the space between you and them.

You might expect at this point to feel pretty uncomfortable. But perhaps the most powerful twist of these portraits is the saintlike beatitude that radiates from them despite the seeming entombment of the figures. With Towery's quirky media laid over them, they are like exhumed corpses decorated by the complex and strangely beautiful detritus of the grave. And, with the soft radiance of Towery's hues and, yes, the underlying babydoll sweetness of the faces, these faces of death are undeniably ecstatic. It's almost overwhelmingly initimate, this peek at the pleasure of dying, and it seems possible, in the presence of these portraits, to conceive death as a glorious, if indeterminate experience. In that lovely balance of horror and grace, death and life, each portrait creates the hypnotic and unexpectedly peaceful effect of a pieta.

Which may not be what Towery wanted exactly. Despite his avowed intention to explore the creepy, tainted, flawed; despite his cruel eye (these dolls are viewed from every mean angle you can think of); despite his aversion to “pretty,” Towery has tapped into something beautiful. In his conflation of grave and womb, he has unearthed the face of eternity. I'm thinking here of Joseph Campbell's definition of eternity, which describes a dimension utterly outside the scope of time and rational comprehension, where distinguishing between death and birth, pain and pleasure, horror and beauty is not too easy to do. Towery somehow gives us a glimpse of this, and in doing so, gives these dolls mortal expression.