Tactile experience

Scott Gordon

“This is the glamour of being an artist,” says David Cray, making some last-minute preparations for Friday night’s opening of his exhibit at Gallery Mornea. He’s using his car keys to scrape his paintings clean of some excess black paint that ran off the works’ frames while still wet. “I feel so special.”

Tonight these paintings will be subjected not only to public scrutiny, but also to repeated physical contact. In order to break down the barrier that usually comes between art and audience, Cray has created five interactive paintings, each divided up into six panels. Viewers can impose their own unique visions on the paintings by shifting the panels around.

“I’m a self-taught artist and I have a problem with this elitist ego shit that happens to go along with the fine arts that says ‘you can’t touch it, you don’t know what it means,'” Cray says.

Cray doesn’t look like a haughty or pretentious artist in the first place — with his sunglasses, unkempt red hair and beard, and loud polka-dotted shirt that shows off a lot of chest hair, he’s a little too gritty to blend in with a classy fine-arts sort of crowd.

“The whole concept is it becomes whatever you want it to,” he later tells some visitors to the gallery, located at 602 Davis St.

Cray’s grittiness also comes out visibly in his brown-heavy, impressionistic oil-on-wood paintings, which he textures with cigarette ashes, beeswax and coffee grounds.

“I thought about what I do when I’m painting and mostly I drink a lot of coffee and smoke a lot of cigarettes,” he says. Plus, the texturing makes the paintings more interesting for the people touching them.

Guests start coming in and puttering around the exhibit room at about 7 p.m., but don’t get that they’re supposed to touch the paintings until Cray starts explaining. Early viewers try moving the panels around cautiously, sometimes getting a scare when a panel slams like a guillotine blade into the newly opened space beneath it. Cray then remembers to warn them to watch their fingers.

In about half an hour, the room starts to fill up and patrons are working alone or in groups, pretty much addicted to the novelty of playing with the paintings.

Katie Adams, a Chicago resident, gets around to all five of the untitled paintings over the course of the evening.

“I think it’s ’cause we’ve been taught all our lives that you can’t touch art, and now you can touch it,” she says. “That’s awesome.”

Frank Pipal, Sara Parikh and visiting Northwestern scholar Scott Baker, all of Chicago, work together to rearrange another one of Cray’s paintings.

“It’s just like a puzzle from your childhood,” Parikh says. “So it’s sort of nostalgic and sort of adult fun.”

Others are hesitant. “I feel like I’m under pressure,” says Evanston resident Jennifer Puente, who hasn’t moved the paintings yet.

Also raging against the high-and-mighty posturing of the art world is Cray’s comical hard rock band, Marsupio, which Cray — its lead vocalist — says he put together for the fun of acting like a rock star.

“We’re just experimenting a little bit with how much people will put up with,” he adds, but later in the evening, a short set leaves an audience of about 30 surprised gallery goers dancing wildly and shouting for an encore.

Cray’s paintings will be on display through July 25. Gallery Mornea is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

City Editor Scott Gordon is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]