The Work: JD Hollingsworth’s Twisted Old Testament Redemption of Feeling through Art

What’s he building in there? The question that Tom Waits started asking in his song, is taken by Hollingsworth and brought into the light, out of the basement gloom. What is he building in there? In the case of The Work, Ansel Bragg is building his own redemption through art. He might not be Michaelangelo carving David, but he is wicked good with a carcass and a flaying knife, with tanning chemicals and polystyrene blocks. Ansel is a taxidermist with an idea. An idea that might just save him, and give people either pause for thought, or else a laugh along the way. After all, what is art good for, what use is it, if it doesn’t garner a reaction from the slavering hoards, those peanut throwing crowds in the cheap seats? Whether that audience is a New York gallery crowd in disturbing fatal for a career deathly quiet, while the artist nibbles on canapes hoping for a new reaction; or else some downhome crowd eating fried everything at a county fair show in Georgia, doesn’t matter.

All that matters is the impact, and Ansel’s work certainly makes an impact. Ansel shows his art or craft amongst the living creatures at a fair, to college boy metal fans who are more concerned with keeping their band shirts pristine, he shows his art to a Church crowd, providing the stimulus for a sermon, and perhaps even triggering redemption amongst others. He shows his art to children, to old men: Ansel provides art to the people, for the people. He is playing to those cheap seats, and their patronage, their dollars in the coffee can, is worth every bit as much to Ansel as some Italian art dealer who buys ten paintings and sends Basquiat’s work to the moon. The difference is scale. The Ansel’s of this world are as important to their communities as the Warhols and Basquiats are to theirs.

Hollingsworth has written a modern parable, in much the same vein (and spare and sparse style) as Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, but where Hemmingway dealt with luck and curses, and biblical albatrosses around the necks of ancient mariners, Hollingsworth’s Job-like figure is a conduit for a treatise on redemption. Redemption through suffering, redemption through art, redemption through the kind of small miracles that are prayed for and granted, but go unrecognized when they occur. There is an old joke about a man who drowns refuses all earthly help, dies and goes to heaven. He asks G-d why He didn’t save him, G-d replies that he sent a lifeboat and a helicopter, what more did he want? This stubborn refusal of a certain breed of Christian, to accept anything less than a burning bush or the Archangel Michael in a cape, provides a common thread throughout The Work, and its New Testament companion – Frankenstein’s Paradox, that gives us a Jesus-figure messiah that doesn’t want to be a savior but has to fight the Devil anyway. I almost pity Hollingsworth’s creations, as they are forced through their supernaturally tinged lives without help or succor, except a distant and unforgiving G-d who keeps sending helicopters, but never shows Himself definitively. Hollinger’s G-d is in the shadows, speaks in riddles, acts in strange blessings. Reluctant Messiachs and feelingless objects of a Lord’s machinations, who send out plagues and armadillos, redemptions and lessons, disguised blessings and harsh redeeming censure. The devil is never who you expect in Hollingsworth’s work, and rarely as much trouble as G-d.

Hollingsworth’s first novel has the air of a parable. Ansel, the protagonist, is a second Job, well almost, in these modern times, a character as thoroughly decent as Job would be unreasonable to expect, instead we have the emotionally and spiritually desensitized Ansel, whose passion in life is taxidermy – taking the creation that in Hollingsworth’s world, belongs to YWH, and improving upon it, creating art from it, as if the body was a malleable form, a canvas. Art from life? Yet, isn’t all art created from nature? Isn’t all life trying to make sense of who and what and the why of itself? When Ansel is given the keys to the Kingdom, the bite of the Apple of knowledge – also known as the internet – he searches fights, brutality, physicality. His redemption begins when he searches out A-R-T and his concept for his taxidermy tableau takes on an inspired edge.

Hollingsworth’s protagonist is already sick, with a case of biblical plague, brought upon him by art, by the creation of his masterpiece, a profane tableau of good against evil. The leprosy-carrying Armadillo taking the part of good, the snake, the predisposed to evil, being benign. Biblical curses as blessings. To save Ansel’s soul, he had to suffer. His spiritual numbness is expressed in the nerve damage from leprosy he caught from the diseased armadillo he stuffed. Or did the armadillo stuff him?

Ansel gets right inside death, right to the bone, ripping out the viscera, hollowing out the form, like Michaelangelo sculpting, but instead with styrofoam and and chemicals, and the kind of mundane things that can be found at Big Lots. What makes The Work so special is that the characters and strange situations exist within a mundane framework that is so instantly recognizable to the reader. Hollingsworth builds tension as Ansel visits various small-town shopping destinations, gathering the mundane materials for his masterpiece, his David, his Sistine Chapel, as the reader witnesses his struggle to create art, and the emotion that pours out when an artist looks down at his own creation, and says the immortal G-dly words: “this is good!”

The art scene loves name dropping, and the names dropped here add to the sense of the uncanny, to the feeling that remarkable things, supernatural redemptions can happen amongst the diners and cafes, the chain stores and tiny county roads and highways of everyday life, as experienced by the average Ansel, Michael and Roy of small town America. This novel is routed firmly in Georgia, the southern gothic is strong, it is proudly southern in its idiom and setting. Crosses burn, racial tensions are resolved on an individual basis through the medium of art, and feeling is restored to the numb in body and soul. The pine and the swampy heat rises from the page.

Ansel deconstructs the fabric of life, and tries to improve on Creation. He reanimates animal’s bodies using circuitry and electricity. Sometimes the animals hit back and a claw performs the original function it had in life. Ansel is trying to play G-d with nature, and whilst his search for art within the natural form is as ancient as the first man who ever scratched a stick figure buffalo into a cave wall, and the desire to imprint our transient lives on the permanent has been with us long before Gaius wrote that he ‘was here’ in Pompei, October 3rd, 78BC.

Hollingsworth’s parable starts to get to the heart of the matter of art. What is art? If art has the power to move, to inspire, to make people want to look, then the response to the art makes it ‘good art’, even if it is a stuffed tableau involving a diseased animal taking on the cape of The Archangel Michael, fighting a snake. Good art brings people together in a shared experience. Good art breaks down barriers, heals old wounds. Good art can make a man like Ansel, white, male and from the deep south, reconsider his casual racism and revise his language and his thought processes to see his black brothers and sisters in the Christ he believes in, as his equals and friends, taking a burning cross on his front lawn, and proudly holding the title he is given as a lover of his fellow man, and thus finding his own redemption. Hollingsworth’s masterful writing, makes the tale of the redemption of Ansel a thing of beauty and art in itself. The art is in the storytelling, the art is in the feeling, the art pours off the page. Hollingsworth’s gorgeous illustrations, melding the mundanity of everyday life with the supernatural thrill of redemption act as a powerful counterpoint, turning The Work into a contemporary illuminated text, drawing in both the Biblical and the secular, and shining a much needed light on the concept of redemption through art. It is the artists who hold the keys to healing and a path forwards through the maze of modern life with our failing heroes.

This is a profoundly religious book written by an author who appears to struggle with G-d in the pages as he is writing it. Ansel’s battle for redemption and to make sense of the creator appears very much as a writer who is ripping apart the flowers and the bodies to see if there is any sense to be made of it all.

As an aside, I did wonder how much of the novel is also a comment on the Athens music and art scene. The fact that the armadillo is called “Michael” – just Michael, Ansel drops the archangel nomenclature early on, did bring to mind the ringmaster of the scene, Michael Stipe, though I am not sure how flattering being cast as a leprosy carrying armadillo is to Stipe, even if the evisceration and tableau both redeems Ansel, and causes a huge buzz on the scene, even amongst the most unrepentant Slipknot fans. “The armadillo was a message of hope” writes Hollingsworth. Certainly not the only messenger of hope, but the one who meant the most to Ansel. As a comment on the art and music scene of Athens, that the writer was most certainly embroiled in, it is certainly an amusing and interesting aside on fickle fame and fortune. And armadillos that transmit their disease and redemption by some accident or fate.

Art is feeling: that feeling might be shock, it might be amusement, it might be disgust, it might be beauty. Ansel’s soul is in a predicament – Ansel is numb emotionally. His art is more of a craft. Ansel has got so numb to the materials he works with, to the fact the vehicle and modes of his art are the carcasses of flesh and bone and life and nature, that he muses about stuffing the body of Bruce Lee, seeing the man only for the sinew and perfection of the flesh, brutally dehumanizing the man. This is the signal that Ansel has gone too far, is too detached, too numbed, that his soul, his humanity, his ability feel is in desperate danger. When leprosy takes away sensation, it is only then that Ansel, now outcast as a leper, starts to be a real feeling human being. The disease is his redemption – Ansel was infected whether or not he made the tableau, it was the art that saved him, that made the suffering worthwhile.

The Work is a profound comment on the inadequacy of the modern world. Cremation for the remains of Ansel’s objects are BBQ parties, joyous sendoffs, the masterpieces are stuffed armadillos and snakes. It is telling that Ansel is desperate for the vehicle for his infection to be the snake, not Michael: he loves that armadillo, no matter the pain that was caused to him, or lack of it. The Work starts in an orgy of physicality, death, numbness, creation, art, spirit and dehumanization that affects Ansel every bit as much as those he sees as less than besouled beings. The ‘rented bed’ of his love for Hazel shows the transience and impermanence of love and solidarity, or loyalty and care. When it comes down to the brass tacks of it, and Ansel is a confirmed leper, Hazel won’t touch him either, and throws him money from a distance.

There are plenty of neat little vignettes within the short novel – the impatient unveiling of The Work, covered by a cheap flowery sheet, mimicking the pomp of art gallery unveilings, the audience every bit as much unappreciative and testy whether it is a connoisseur of taxidermy in Georgia, or high art somewhere more allegedly refined. The grand pathos of a dead critter with a nasty disease, reanimated stuffed bears that can still swipe a guy’s scalp off, highlights the ultimate futility and ridiculousness of art. Art is worth only what someone will pay for it, it’s intrinsic value is no more than a few supplies from Big Lots, what people are paying for is the illumination, the thought, the inspiration, the divine spirit that is transmitted through the art or craft, whether it is aimed at the critics or the lovers.

The Work is a densely packed short novel, full of hilarity, sadness, loss and spirit. It is a work of art in itself, and worth reading for the sheer kick of the intensity that deftly wrought southern gothic Georgia charm that Hollingsworth always does so artfully. This is a book that provokes thought, that gets a reaction – whether that is disgust, or fear or a sense of unease that we, the reader, might too be living within this world that can turn odd and supernatural with its little miracles and heavenly trials and tribulations. Whether or not hope is too grand an object to be held up as a possibility, let alone hope through a stuffed armadillo, I do not know, but it sure is entertaining thinking about it, and after all, isn’t being entertained and provoked part of the agreement between author and reader? Hollingsworth succeeds in creating a protagonist who is strengthened and redeemed, and a work that should endure.

Available via Casa Forte Publishers and Amazon

…if the film people ever get hold of The Work…this has to be a contender for the soundtrack…

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