Innocent mistakes: Venue weakens Wells

Jesse Wells, "Shark Fin."
Jesse Wells, "Shark Fin."

One of the best things about Charlottesville's art scene is the way commercial businesses, from coffee shops to real estate offices, transform their empty walls into ad hoc galleries to showcase local art. Unfortunately, such efforts sometimes fail to do the artwork justice.

In previous columns, I've lamented the difficulty of viewing art at Mudhouse, where a steady stream of java addicts, desperate for their caffeine fix, hampers access to what hangs on the walls. But now I have a new nominee for worst art venue: Splendora's Gelato Caf©, which currently features Jesse Wells's works on paper.

Wells delicately combines gouache and gesso with pen-and-ink drawings to create imagined moments of childhood vulnerability. Her primarily small images have a flat, simple affect that recalls illustrations in reading primers or perhaps First-Aid manuals. Unfortunately, they are difficult to see since most of the show's 15 works hang above Splendora's extra-tall padded booths.

Which is a shame since Wells's drawings are worth considering. Tapping into viewers' associations with similar illustrations, she imbues her work with an aura of innocence. In each pared-down situation, Wells prompts the viewer to think, "uh-oh" (in lower-case), as she places children in perilous situations of their own making. For instance, in "Rail"-which, thankfully, hangs at eye-level in the front of the caf©-a young girl in a short-sleeved green dress lies curled on the ground in a snowy forest, her jacket and scarf inexplicably discarded nearby.

Snow-blanketed woods serve as settings for two other pieces, but most of Wells's images are context-free, encouraging viewers to fill in the blanks surrounding the figures' predicaments. The works are often simultaneously amusing and disturbing. In "Shark Fin," a red-shirted little boy carrying a pennant approaches an older boy lying prone with a shark fin strapped to his back. What has happened? Is the finned boy dead or just resting? uh-oh.

Wells's technique is remarkable for its restraint. She uses simple outlines with a minimum of details to suggest children's bodies and clothing, adding washes of translucent pigment for color here and there. Her images are, nevertheless, dynamic, as demonstrated by "Beehive Wrestle," in which a girl wearing a green dress and a boy outfitted in a red singlet appear to dance as they struggle to remove an ochre beehive from their heads.

Wells's work is wonderful and thought provoking, but, alas, Splendora's is hardly splendid for its display.

Jesse Wells's works on paper hang through January 31 at Splendora's Gelato Caf©. 317 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 296-8555.