Domestic Nightmares

There’s a phrase often repeated among surrealists, Dadaists, and those attempting to explain the artistic oddities of those first two groups. Echoing André Breton’s sentiment, the surreal, they say, is “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an ironing board.” By mixing totally disjointed objects and materials, these artists believed they could better access the marvelous soup of their subconscious–or at least get in touch with its absurd nature. Mexican sculptor Ernesto Marenco takes up the call of his surrealist predecessors in “Objetos Intervenidos” (Intervened Objects), a retrospective of his work at 33 Contemporary Gallery.

Upon stepping into the exhibit’s space at the back of the gallery, the viewer is at once struck with the skin-crawling beauty of the objects spread throughout the room. Centered on a pedestal in the middle of Marenco’s room is a pretty piece of old metal craft: a small iron resting upright, its petite grip still attached to the body. But the familiar domesticity comes with a dark underside: a litter of metal spikes rise out of its bottom, facing the doorway. This piece, “Homage to Man Ray,” directly recalls the work of the well-known surrealist, who also stuck nails into an old iron and called the new, unusable object “Cadeau” (Gift). Those frightening spikes recur throughout Marenco’s show, throwing off the comfort found in ordinary household articles and inviting dark and disturbing connections.

Deeper into the room, along the dark painted walls and seated on another low pedestal, is an expertly crafted hobbyhorse–or rather, a hobby-bull–titled “The Little Bull for the Baby Pain.” A cute and lovely display of woodwork; but, there again, a host of masochistic spikes jut out from the seat of the plaything. Similar in both prickliness and material, a piece titled “The Last Step,” is fastened onto the dark-blue wall next to the bull. A pleasant match, the inside of this open-faced shoebox is a weathered pair of loafers turned toes-to-the-ground, their insides filled to the brim with the spiny “gumballs” of sweet gum-trees. Perhaps the most discomforting intervened item, though, is “Toothbrush,” a smooth white wooden brush with teeth growing out from where the bristles should be.

Marenco constantly plays with the tension between daily comforts and the uncanny nastiness they obscure. There’s an undeniable, creepy comedy to all of it. In this exhibit, he riffs on puns at one moment (“Toothbrush,” for instance), and revels in absurdity the next, as in “Hairball Machine,” a rusted gumball machine filled with tangles of the artist’s girlfriend’s actual hair). The viewer’s gut reaction to all of these surreal pairings is a combination of a scoff and shudder. But under the surface of these works, which evoke art movements of years past, is also a distinct, personal experience–a story of the artist himself.

Marenco manipulates many childhood staples in “Objetos Intervenidos,” but the ones central to the artist’s own memory seem to be placed in the limelight. “Slingshot for an Altarboy,” for example, transforms a rosary into a slingshot with a leather-strap and a T-bone handle. Next to it hangs “The Voice of Silence,” a corroded tin lid with the silhouette of the Virgin Mary in its center, recalling traditional portraiture in a striking, almost perverse way. Both works reinforce an understanding of the artist’s childhood under Mexican Catholicism, but “Objetos Intervenidos” unfolds for the viewers, allowing them to dredge out buried thoughts. These items of mixed-together elements and odd material house the pains of childhood, both personal and universal, well addressed or still unresolved. With some strange pleasure, they at last pull back the veil on absurd connections that sprout up there. Or so said the umbrella to the ironing board.

33 Contemporary at Zhou B. Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St. Through February 11. Monday-Thursday, 10am-5pm; Friday, 10am-7pm; also by appointment. Free. (708)837-4534.


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