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A Near-Magical Harsh Realm PDF Print E-mail
Art - Reviews
Written by Steve Banks   
Tuesday, 28 February 2006 18:00
Installation art is one of the trickiest feats of alchemy an artist can attempt. When three artists collaborate on an installation, their strange process can be sensory gold or visual sludge begging to be flushed. Although Harsh Realm at the Mode Art Gallery in downtown Davenport does not achieve the magical transformation of lead into gold, there is some sparkle to be seen.

The exhibit, running through March 30 at 226 West Third Street, is the latest incarnation of an ongoing and evolving installation by the collaborative trio called “Triklops.”

Triklops (Milwaukee artists Dustin Ruegger and Mike Kloss and Chicago artist Ron Ewert – all recent graduates from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) is the surviving core of a larger collaborative group called “Dumbeyes” – a possible word play on both “demise” and “dumb ass.”

Harsh Realm is a blend of abstracted cityscapes, logos, pop icons, crudely simplified interpretations of romanticized landscapes, cartoon characters, pulsating strobe lights, overwhelming sound elements, and just plain goofy fantasy creatures covering nearly every surface imaginable in the gallery. The installation is brimming with fearless art-school energy and is reminiscent of the small constructed cityscapes of African artist Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-), the larger and more obsessive Merzbau constructed by collage master Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and, of course, the absurdist high jinks of Dada.

While the institutions and effects of pop culture certainly have been explored before, its ubiquity and ever-changing nature invite constant re-examination. Through Harsh Realm, Triklops is superficially exploring and light-heartedly reconstructing our daily barrage of choppy images, shallow celebrity personalities, sound-bite understandings, and libido-driven consumerism.

The walls are layered in areas – almost like a dragon’s scales – with dense concentrations of crude line drawings of rock stars, skyscrapers, pyramids, brick textures, Rorschach-like ink-blot drawings, jubilant mask-like faces, and cartoonish portraits. (Even Mumm-Ra from “The Thundercats” cartoon makes an appearance in this pop-art cacophony.)

One group of drawings is towered over by a large figure whose legs are formed from several other faces/masks and whose right arm ends in a popcorn box and left arm could be classified as a fingerprint phallus arm. This American variation on, or reinterpretation of, Siva holding the flames of creation and destruction in his hands, has become something akin to a giant Transformer robot (also a cartoon from the ’80s) wielding the powers of consumption and self-gratification.

On the opposite wall is the head of a female Native American, complete with headband and feather, erupting from the top of a tumultuous rugby scrum of eyes, fangs, teeth, hands, beaks, and geometric space-station structures. This mass of drawings, helped by its proximity to stylized blue waves, gives them the impression of being the figurehead on the keel of a galleon cutting through the water. Instead of the waves being the traditional representation of chaotic force, the ship is.

In many of its drawn elements, Triklops utilizes a Cubistic spacial device where instead of creating an illusionary space leading away from the viewer (seen in typical Renaissance paintings), the drawing invades real space by jutting out from the wall. In addition to a wall-based invasion of space, there are physical elements intruding from the ceiling, including a multi-winged cardboard, foil, and fabric flying pterodactyl-chicken.

The various layers of imagery and objects on the walls and hanging from the ceiling orbit the central boxy, tent-like creature with flashing eyes and a long and winding red-felt tongue. The creature, known as The Harshest Realm, is not merely an object to be contemplated; it is also to be entered and experienced from within – a whale for a modern-day Jonah. Inside are headphones and a strobe light to disorient and inundate the senses.

Triklops’ unsophisticated and sparing use of magic marker-like color creates islands of heightened interest, but its nonchalant placement doesn’t maximize the potential for visual and concept-driven movements between the structures, creatures, and drawings. One way they did establish this kind of movement was through the simple repetitive use of a striped black fabric that can be found in a conical structure on the floor against a wall, an upright roasting chicken straddling an electric faux-fire log, and the soaring pterodactyl-chicken. That simple cloth tied those three objects together.

Where Harsh Realm falls short is not that it is offensive or even that it is too frantic or eclectic; it fails because it doesn’t go far enough. The areas that resonate the best both visually and conceptually are the places where the objects and the drawings obtain a critical mass. There is a saying attributed to Joseph Stalin in reference to Soviet tank output: “That quantity has a quality of its own.” That is true for this installation.

Triklops needs to densely populate the environment with more structures, objects, and imagery for the installation to transform the space. Once you have control of the space, you begin to have control of the viewer’s perception. The inside of the flashing-eyed creature is the best example of this spacial transmogrification and its effect on the viewer.

In addition to Harsh Realm, which occupies most of the gallery, near the entrance are groupings of more traditional wall-hung pieces by several other artists.

Erin Wilbur contributes numerous smaller panels, almost all without titles. A roughly square but ragged-edged piece features a fragmented verbal and visual dialogue among three figures and a thinking grenade. Series of parallel lines ricochet in and out of the picture plane, compressing the visual discourse between the three figures and the silently thought-filled grenade.

The central figure’s head is rendered in pink ink attached to a solid black torso ending in octopus-like tentacles with mittens. It is flanked to the left by a figure in a jacket with a mop of curly hair and a stylized eruption of crimson guts. One of its mitten-encased appendages reaches toward the tar-like blob arms that ooze down from the standing figure’s fashionable sleeves. This pre-contact moment alludes to the classic image of God reaching out to give the spark of life to a lackadaisical Adam in Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a modern day flavor.

Although a specific narrative is not clear in the piece, it might not be the point. The stylized violence, the quasi-fashion-diva with melting arms, and the thinking grenade (which represents potential violence) all suggest an intellectual malaise in regard to an ambivalent society that simultaneously condemns and cultivates these values.

The artist known as Kettle has an ensemble of five small framed works, all of them illustrations on printed paper from textbooks. The images reside on the type, but they rely heavily on its subdued visual cohesion to ground them and to energize them. This use of text has a simple sophistication with an occasional sly hint of humor.

In the piece It’s not up to me but I think she has an idea, we are presented with a nymph who has a pumpkin-like head, upturned nose, vacant eyes that are spaced far apart, full lips, and monstrous breasts that would make the paleolithic fertility goddess Venus of Willendorf a bit lacking by comparison. The balloonish bosoms are exaggerated to the point of being quietly humorous – as in you don’t want to openly snicker for fear of being told to “grow up.” A closer inspection of the underlying text reveals a lengthy academic description of the respiratory system. The serious dry tone of the text juxtaposed with the nymph’s “inflated” knockers ultimately makes the piece a laugh-out-loud experience.

One of the bigger surprises to come with the Harsh Realm experience is how well the non-Triklops works interact with the installation and echo some of the same irreverent motifs. Harsh Realm might only partially deliver the goods, but there is still some magic to be found throughout the gallery.
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