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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

‘Unis’ at Charles Allis Museum

Unicorns alive and well on the East Side

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The Charles Allis Art Museum is a gorgeous, creaky old house whose domestic bones embrace its modern function as an art museum. Usually exhibitions lie on its surface, so to speak. Items are placed in the space but the historical character of the venue is ancillary. Not so with the exhibition by Timothy Westbrook Studios, “Unis: The Origin of the Unicorn.”

A clothing designer and artist, Timothy Westbrook has a lifelong fascination with the horned creature. This show spins a tale in which the first unicorn comes into existence in upstate New York, a magical wooded landscape where he hails from. Coincidentally, Charles Allis’ family came from not too far away. Building upon Allis’ penchant for art collecting and patronage, Westbrook’s exhibition conjures up a connection whereby a team of intrepid explorers is commissioned to investigate the presence of the unicorn in North America.

The exhibition is a narrative and treasure hunt, replete with exhibition map. Take one, as this is the sort of show where a guide makes it all the more enjoyable. Art from the museum’s permanent collection is joined with ephemera, installations and Westbook-designed costumes to form a storybook which one walks into. As with much of myth and folklore, a suspension of disbelief is asked, but giving in allows one to delve more deeply into the story. The more one follows the trail, the clearer the metaphor of the unicorn becomes as a symbol of dreams and possibilities.

Various artists contribute to an additional companion exhibition, “Ark: Unicorn Contemporary Art.” Some seem more tenuously connected to the theme, but pieces such as Daina Mattis’ carved box elder Spiral Graft are works in which even the uninitiated can recognize the horned form. Misha Rabinovich provides a DIY spin with take-away papers whereby you can make a Unicorn Rescue Call to cheer you up when in a bad state. Write down the names of your childhood best friend and your first love, cut and fold the paper according to the directions, and blow (done best with a whistling technique). Does it work? If you believe, yes.

“Unis: The Origin of the Unicorn” is on view at the Charles Allis Art Museum (1801 N. Prospect Ave.) through Sept. 28 when it will end with a closing gala event.