It was cold enough outside to catch me off-guard with the momentary conviction that Santa had set up shop in Miguel Cortez’s antena gallery. Sounds of running motors and clicking machinery came from an array of colorful objects placed sporadically throughout the room, creating a mechanical harmony. Viewers engaged with their surroundings, pulling knobs and tinkering with little objects: experiencing the artwork required participation. But the wholesome aspect of this first impression was disrupted upon surveying the small, high-ceilinged space more closely. The contraptions lining the walls revealed themselves not as charming teddy bears and dolls, but instead as mildly perverted reconstructions of old children’s toys. Artist Nick Black had dismantled the playthings, rearranged parts, and reassembled them into an “Orgy of Mutant Toys.”
Rubber seems to be almost entirely absent from the scene…until one sees it seeping through the walls by way of Paul Nudd’s drawings. Slimy greens and dirty browns assume organic forms resembling hairy amoebas and other oozing blobs. Each drawing features a short message, either a humorous catchphrase or a random combination of words, absorbed into the flow of the composition.
Nudd also furnishes the gallery with a large, black, smoke-emitting sculpture which blends in with its environment by clouding its own image. One corner of the room is dominated by its four hollow heads, each taller than the people staring through its eyes to the back inside surface. Each is connected to a tubular post, all four of which merge into one long tube at the base. A smoke machine positioned at the opening of the communal tube generates white smoke which slowly creeps into the room through the facial orifices. After a few rounds of smoke machine magic, the small room takes on a hazy atmosphere through which the distorted sculptures shimmer like relics from mystical religious ceremonies.
Amid the drawings, the mutant toys, and the four-headed smoke beast, podiums are dispersed throughout the room, supporting more darkly fanciful works of sculpture. This almost cluttered organization creates a surprisingly comfortable space in which viewers can feel right at home. Despite what some would probably consider unsettling imagery, the room facilitates a friendly, open environment in which to embrace such a collection. The curator seems to have meticulously thought out and arranged the objects in the space. What could have easily turned into a random muddle is successfully distributed throughout the gallery. In addition, the warm lighting helps maintain an atmosphere at ease with the disturbing art objects.
At the opening, Black fit right into the scene. He hurried to join any interested viewers, excited to share the story of the piece before them. His enthusiasm illustrates the vibe of the gallery and the type of genuine enthusiasm about experimentation in the arts that antena promotes. In the spirit of Cortez’s space, everyone excitedly engages with the art before them and shares ideas about new projects and events.
Black and Nudd have successfully created an environment in which the fanciful and bizarre both find a comfortable retreat. But while the installation provides an interesting aesthetic challenge, the art maintains itself at a certain relational distance from the observer. There is limited potential for breaking the ice between the fluidity of human emotion and the explicit absurdity of the images. That said, if you find yourself having a weird day, this exhibit will be thoroughly engaging, even refreshing.
antena gallery, 1765 S. Laflin St. Through March 21. Saturday, noon-5pm or by appointment. (773)344-1940. antenapilsen.com