Imaginative 'Denis The Pirate' Video, Stills At Wadsworth Atheneum

Visitors to Wadsworth Atheneum's MATRIX Gallery should watch Sam Messer's 11-minute video "Denis the Pirate" more than once. The detailed, crazily imaginative images go by so quickly that one viewing isn't enough.

Still, it's not possible to catch everything. So curator Patricia Hickson hung 140 of Messer's original etchings to let visitors peruse deeply, to find bizarre and delightful secrets that the moving image swept out of the mind.

Messer is associate dean of art at Yale University and is a printmaker with a distinctive style that Hickson refers to as "the controlled, chaotic line." In the more than six years of creating "Denis the Pirate," Messer made 1,700 etchings to illustrate a fanciful story written by his friend, National Book Award-winning writer Denis Johnson ("Jesus' Son," "Tree of Smoke").

More than 20 years ago, Johnson wrote the story as a bedtime tale for Messer's daughter Josephine. Denis, it seems, was the wickedest pirate in the Caribbean, who created an island out of stolen gold topped with layers of his victims' corpses. He was egged on by his pet monkey, Babe Ruth, who smoked magic mushrooms and whispered evil deeds in Denis' ear.

In Messer's hands, Johnson's tale is now a freaky visual procession of mass murder, amorality, a hallucinating monkey, mutant turtles, sailboats with eyes, Jesus, the queen of England and graphic nudity. Messer made the etchings, photographed them and sequenced them into stop-motion animation.

The film is narrated by actor Liev Schreiber and has music by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson of Arcade Fire.

The tale is entirely Johnson's. "I would never touch his words. Those were his words," Messer says in a phone interview. "If anything I added some sound effects." But the artistic vibe is all Messer, especially in a drug-fueled dream sequence.

"I was thinking it was like Jimi Hendrix playing 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' You hear it, you know it, it's 'The Star Spangled Banner,' but then it goes off into being Jimi and then back into 'Star Spangled Banner' again," he said.

"During the mushroom sequence, I riff on my own but within that were things that meant a lot to Denis," he says. "Denis was religious. A lot of his stories were based on redemption and Christianity. So I included Buddha, Moses, Shakespeare, Elvis, Walt Whitman, people who were idols and heroes to Denis as a writer."

On close inspection of the etchings, inspiration by other artists also becomes clear. Denis and Babe Ruth sit in a Pieta pose. Other images call to mind Picasso's minotaurs, Rembrandt, Rubens and those ancient ocean maps that included renderings of imaginary creatures.

Hickson is especially impressed by the collaborative nature of the project.

"It's an amazing feat of friendship and collaboration across a variety of disciplines," she said. "People tend to think of artists as being all alone in their studios. But he's part of a creative community."

The show will be up until Feb. 11. Messer will visit the Atheneum on Nov. 15 at 5 p.m. with another friend, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. They will screen the video, talk about artistic collaboration and do a Q&A. Admission is $20, $15 for members.

Another show of work by Messer, "Fear Not," will be at Fred Giampietro Gallery, 1064 Chapel St. in New Haven, from Nov. 18 to Dec. 23. giampietrogallery.com.

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