Lauren Elizabeth Cunningham
Charlie Brouwer at Whitespace Gallery

Now through September 1, artworks by Charlie Brouwer are on display at Whitespace Gallery. Brouwer, a Michigan-born artist who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, clearly finds inspiration in his rural residence. Images of the countryside dominate his current body of work. Prefacing his personal vision, an oversized grand piano greets visitors as they approach the gallery. A ladder extends from the piano into the sky above, suggesting the ability of music to transport listeners to a higher realm. The sculpture sets the tone for an exhibition that celebrates transcendental experiences.

Just inside the gallery, viewers encounter an impressive installation. A dense collection of upright ladders reaches to the ceiling. In the center of the grouping is a horizontal human figure constructed from the same wood as the ladders. Is the figure dead or asleep? Both possibilities are supported by the installation's title, Now I Lay Me... (also the title of the exhibition). The phrase is the beginning of a well-known bedtime prayer in which the supplicant asks for God's protection and grace should death come during the night. Thus the mass of ladders serve as a sanctuary for its occupant.

The thirty drawings in the exhibition continue the visual and spiritual qualities of the installation. The vertical orientation of the paper and the horizontal lines of text in each drawing mirror the rails and rungs of the ladders. The exhibition is further unified by a neutral palette and rough, modest aesthetic. The ladders are as rustic as Brouwer's imagery, which includes pastoral fields, starry skies, open roads, clapboard houses and, of course, more ladders. Rendered in black and white media, with hazy and shadowy areas, the scenes are best understood as memories of mystical events.

Both the drawn and real ladders symbolically connect the natural world with the spiritual realm. They are markers of transcendental experiences. The drawings capture the invigoration a person feels when gazing upon a beautiful meadow or walking through a quiet forest. In the installation, the figure is raised up not from climbing the ladders. Rather, something inmaterial keeps the figure suspended peacefully among them, high enough that viewers cannot make out a face. In an elevated state, identity becomes irrelevant. Now I Lay Me... is an exhibition about losing oneself in the moment.

Regrettably, the sheer quantity of drawings undermines their innate humility. Brouwer set out to make thirty works on paper, a prescription that may account for some drawings seeming redundant and/or formulaic. The verbose titles could also benefit from some editing. The words from the artist and variety of literary sources, including the New Testament, William Shakespeare, and Leonard Cohen, feel a touch didactic. Nonetheless, the body of work credits Brouwer's healthy work ethic and thoughtful approach. This cohesive and contemplative exhibition is definitely worth seeing.