University City

Cabins for contemplation: Art at UNCC

With the ongoing celebration of Charlotte-born artist Romare Bearden's centennial, discussion of collage this fall has been abundant.

Bearden's finely crafted collages of African-American life, in exhibitions at the Mint Museum Uptown and Jerald Melberg Gallery, have inspired thousands of viewers to consider the evocative power of a whole made from many parts.

"Confabulatores nocturni," in the Storrs Gallery on the campus of UNC Charlotte through Jan. 25 (except Dec. 26-Jan. 2), also takes the notion of collage as its starting point, although the results are strikingly different from Bearden's.

Brian Ambroziak and Andrew McLellan are the show's creators.

McLellan is a graduate of the UNCC School of Architecture, and Ambroziak is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee. Both are intrigued by the perception of time and memory as well as space, which they explore through installations, theoretical design work and writing.

"Who are we? Who is each one of us, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?" they ask, quoting the Italian writer Italo Calvino. "Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable."

A medley of literature, history, design and the game of chess, "Confabulatores nocturni" reflects that combination of books read and things imagined in a beautiful and complex exhibition that is at once idiosyncratic and universal.

As architects, Ambroziak and McLellan work first with drawings and structures, but they are equally fascinated by stories and philosophies. The show's title refers to men who tell fables at night.

Described in a 1980 essay by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, "confabulatores nocturni" were reportedly commissioned by Alexander the Great to ease his insomnia.

At its heart, "Confabulatores nocturni" is about contemplation, and contemplation takes time. Watches, cellphones, calendars - all those things that beep and ring and remind us of what we think we should be doing - will only hinder those who wish to fully engage with this show.

The viewer enters the gallery and follows the curve of the wall to move clockwise around the room. On the walls are text panels and exquisitely rendered architectural drawings. Their three-dimensional models, created using a 3D printer, stand in small pools of light on laminate wood pedestals that protrude from the wall.

Encountering the first text panel, the viewer joins a narrator on a journey: a fictional story by Ambroziak and McLellan in which the narrator comes upon a wall made of 64 compartments, a structure akin to an upturned chessboard.

Within some of those compartments are buildings, vessels; what the show's creators call "cabanons." These cabanons - their descriptions and their depictions in two and three dimensions - form the core of the show.

"Cabanon" is French for "small cabin." Across the countryside of France, one can find small cottages, huts where shepherds found respite from their flocks, or farmers from their fields.

But the cabanon that has most interested Ambroziak and McLellan is one built by Le Corbusier on the coast of France in 1952, a tiny hut where the famed architect/artist sought refuge each August until his death at that shore in 1965.

The cabanons in "Confabulatores nocturni" are abandoned, but each carries within it the spirit of a writer - St. Exupéry, Thoreau, Melville, Ondaatje and others - and at night, the narrator hears these men converse. While their colloquies are fictional, they are rooted in each writer's work and experience.As it recounts dialogues and describes the cabanons, the language is sometimes too abstract and self-consciously mythic. One occasionally longs for the directness of Hemingway or the comic irony of Kafka.

But there are moments of compelling storytelling, such as the tale of a library card catalogue that is smashed to the floor, its contents blowing out the door and down the street to be discovered later, card by card, in the slush.

Like the narrator's story and the musings of the writers, the cabanons are fictions: fantastic, imagined buildings inspired by the literary spirits who inhabit them. And each, too, is a sort of architectural collage.

In an essay from 1939 and a subsequent short story called "The Library of Babel," Borges envisioned a collection of symbols and letters whose combinations would encompass all thoughts and expressions in all languages. Challenged by the notions of limitation, totality, and infinity, Ambroziak and McLellan decided to apply Borges's concept to the architectural world.

"Confabulatores nocturni" has many layers. Certainly, even in a brief visit, one can appreciate the artistry. But those who are willing to slow down will be rewarded.