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With imposing retro designs, he builds a case against 'progress'

Thorpe's collages say much about modernism

WORCESTER -- A pair of helicopters flit across a cloudy sky toward three octagonal office towers, jutting precariously over the sheer face of a pine-topped cliff, in David Thorpe's picture ``Pilgrims."

In his ``Life Is Splendid," a trio of people link hands and raise their arms to the sky atop a dangerously long, narrow bridge between a cliff and a wooden tower resembling a rocket.

It's such buildings that are Thorpe's protagonists, dominating everything around them, in the five collages on view in the British artist's first solo museum exhibition in the United States: ``A Meeting of Friends," at the Worcester Art Museum through Aug. 13.

Thorpe nails the look of midcentury modernist design -- geometric shapes or biomorphic forms, steel and glass mixed with wood, stone, and mosaics. His buildings feel awfully familiar, like places you drove by once or maybe saw in some book; he's just relocated them to an alpine fantasy land.

A couple of his retro designs recall churches, and such titles as ``House for Auto-Destiny, Imaginative Research" suggest that these buildings are new-age temples. But other names, such as ``Militant Lives," suggest something darker. Thorpe frames each scene from below to make the buildings loom ominously, so what they most recall are the secret lairs of scoundrels in James Bond flicks, in particular the villain's mountaintop redoubt in 1969's ``On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

Thorpe is trying to say something about modernism, utopian communes, colonial settlements. His scenes recall supervillain strongholds because, ultimately, Thorpe speaks of the dangers of idealism so alluring and ambitious that it teeters into cultism or totalitarianism. The feeling is reinforced by his pointy-topped wood and stained - glass screen ``The Impenetrable Friend , " which divides the gallery. It could have slithered out of one of his pictures to corral you.

Thorpe was born in 1972 in London, where he continues to reside. He studied painting and photography, but he adopted the medium of cut-paper collage for its old-timey, crafty feel, according to wall text in the show. Thorpe hoped it would distance him from modernist trappings.

In the Worcester collages, dating from 1999 to 2002, Thorpe sensitively lays thin wisps of paper next to and atop one another. The drab tones of stone, bark, olive, and autumn leaves suggest watercolor washes. He incorporates bits of wood veneer, dried flowers, bark, glass, leather, and pebbles that project slightly out from the picture. This tiny bit of three-dimensionality plays tricks on your eyes, making the rocket-tower and the covered bridge spanning a mountain ravine in ``Militant Lives" seem to pop out of the scenes.

Thorpe's domineering buildings combine with his quaint handmade aesthetic to touch on a preeminent issue in avant-garde art today: our society's mad dash toward technological ``progress." We live in an era of anxiety, when we simultaneously embrace the promise and fear the threat of stem cells, the Internet, smart bombs, bioengineered food. Thorpe is among the artists rebelling against this technological trend via handcrafted works of natural and recycled materials.

So why does the work still end up feeling blah?

At Worcester, his collages are paired with six 18th- and 19th-century American landscape paintings he selected from the museum's collection that echo his interest in idealistic ventures. They tell of early Americans' reverence for the ``virgin" continent and their pioneering quest to harness it for their profit. Thorpe's collages are fun to look at because they're so dang crafty, like some obsessive school construction-paper project. But they're too buttoned up to compete with the ravishing hot-house landscape he chose, for example, by Martin Johnson Heade: a pair of shimmering green hummingbirds perched near an ominous pink orchid above a lush, sweaty valley.

Nor, for all their mystery and romance, do Thorpe's works have the drama of those illustrations created by the masters of pulp adventure, which his art echoes. Thorpe flirts with big ideas and fantasy styles, but his approach is all dry refinement. If only he borrowed some of their passion and bravado, and risked being a little more lurid or odd, a little more intellectually daring, a little more discomforting.

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