“O take me away from the thorns and the fire, and let me recline on the Throne of Desire.”

— Leonard Cohen

Last May, photographer Denn Santoro and painter/ illustrator Helen Granger opened the S&G Project Gallery on the third floor of the Hatch Street Studios building in the north end of New Bedford.

Their concept was to offer a space to display “projects,” collections of works by any given artist that may be too large to work in a group exhibition but perhaps too small to constitute a traditional one-person show.

By offering space in the S&G, which also features the artwork of Santoro and Granger, several guest artists — Hollianne Wood-Carruthers, who displayed elaborate constructions of repurposed materials; Kim Gatesman, who showed her prints exploring the fundamental forces of electricity and magnetism; and Brooke Mullins Doherty, who offered up her monoprint series “Biorhythms,” — found a perfect Goldilocks “just right” exhibition solution.

The current exhibit featuring eight paintings and a multitude of prints by Michael Walden is mysterious, moody, sensual and a bit foreboding.

Called “Labyrinth of Desire,” Walden’s work asks questions without easy answers, starting with “what is desire?”

Is it the heady primal drive of lust? The soulful want of intimacy? Togetherness or solitude? The cat-and-mouse game of flirtation?

In an artist’s statement he offers up a clue by quoting Rousseau: “Woe to him who has nothing left to desire… We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.”

Ah, the implication … the expectation. It is the wine yet uncorked, the prayer unanswered, the pleasure of the lover only fantasized.

As Walden notes, ”…desire in all its forms is about the pursuit of happiness, and understanding that is attained just before it is lost.”

Or as Lou Reed warbled: “It’s all downhill after the first kiss…”

Walden’s paintings, all oil on linen, suggest uncomfortable arbitrations between the past and the present, between the public sphere and the private realm, between physical urge and emotional upheaval.

Most of the paintings are effectively self-portraits, often wearing a tuxedo and bowtie, sometimes without his pants. In all but one of the paintings — “Complication” — he is alone. A suave gentleman, one hand in pocket, leans against a desk while in a room behind, at which he stares, another man has his head in his hand, seemingly overwhelmed.

Or maybe they are both the same man?

In “Capitulation,” the tuxedoed gent, shoes still on, lies on a bed made for two, alone. The pale blue and off-white stripes of the wallpaper and the canopy over the bed suggest a jail cell, as if he were a prisoner of desire … and his confinement is solitary.

“Recumbent” features the man, supine on a black leather couch, studded with golden upholstery tacks. He wears nothing but briefs, his eyes are wide open, staring up at the ceiling, sun filters in, the door is open.

Walden flirts with death in “The Second Waltz,” in which the formidable ancient pair of Eros and Thanatos dance. In classical painting, a naked woman often cavorts with what one assumes to be a male skeleton. In Walden’s version, he is Eros, decked out in his formal best and embracing the fleshless Thanatos as they waltz.

A maze is not the same thing as a labyrinth. A maze is multicursal, with branching choices of path and direction. A labyrinth has only a single way to the center, an unambiguous route … there is only one way to the goal. And if the goal is desire, Walden — like Rousseau and Lou Reed — knows that the prize is fleeting.

“Michael Walden: Labyrinth of Desire” is on display at the S&G Project Gallery, at the Hatch Street Studios, 88 Hatch St. (306A), New Bedford by appointment (call 774-279-2606.) A public closing reception will be held on Friday, Oct. 27, 5 to 8 p.m.

Don Wilkinson is a painter and art critic who lives in New Bedford. Originally appeared in South Coast Today.

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