Holiday Horror Show 

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Once Upon … Happily After
By appointment only
Through Dec 29
Unit B (Gallery)
500 Stieren Street
312-375-1871
Too much holiday cheer got you down?

Check out the decorations at Unit B’s exhibition Once Upon … Happily After. You’ll see coffins instead of sleighs, skulls instead of sugarplums, and snowy scenery, with dark references to crack pipes and cocaine.

On a recent visit, local artist John Mata, who helps organize the exhibitions at Unit B, described how performance artist Erick Michaud used his kitschy props, ghoulish makeup, echo chamber, and black lighting to conjure up a north-woods nightmare as he recited a poem about “three thoughts — past, present and future.”

The performance wasn’t as meticulously crafted as, say, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Michaud, who had a bad case of the flu when the show opened in November, ad-libbed about how he was losing dead skin cells every time he rubbed his nose. By the end of his 10-minute monologue, his nostrils were stuffed with Kleenex.

Visitors to Unit B’s Living Room gallery will still see the box of tissues amid the other artifacts left behind. These include a faux-fur gauntlet with crudely whittled wooden bear claws, more bear claws hanging from the rough-hewn birch microphone stand, and faux bear foreskins dangling nearby.

Slats from the fur-trimmed shield are deliberately kitschy as well, made from sections of 1970s-style fake wood paneling. And the hokey, plastic skulls-on-a-stick surrounding the fake evergreens are only slightly more menacing than so many plastic flamingos.

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Top: Performance artist Erick Michaud at Unit B. Above: Charlie Morris’s eerily lifeless sculptures of everyday objects.

The set pieces are not for sale, but two paintings that serve as background scenery are. Called “North 1” and “North 2,” these painted wood panels are darkly foreboding, with jagged evergreen shadows cutting into a snowy landscape. But they’re also deliberately cheapened with a tacky shimmer of glitter.

A video of Michaud’s performance
wasn’t available on a recent visit, but he can be seen in a DVD loop with his performance of “Mad Town,” “Studio Reel,” and “Where Eagles Dare.” In the latter, he punks out with a sketch pad strapped to his shoulders like a guitar, standing outside Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, screaming “I ain’t no goddam sonofabitch!”

On the adjacent wall, Unit B presents Seth Johnson’s four graphite sketches of faces and objects. “Deformed Man” is the most striking, contrasting in photorealistic detail the steady eye and partial smile of the unaffected part of an elephantitis victim’s face with the grossly distorted other half.

Johnson’s “Cave Man” appears as a crude halftone representation, with a dead black void where the eyes should be. “Sword” traces the finely detailed snake forms carved into the hilt of an ornamental weapon, and features a serpentine echo in the shape of its blade. And “Casket” presents an open coffin, silently waiting to be filled for eternity.

In Unit B’s Kitchen gallery, visitors can also see the eerily lifeless sculptures of Charlie Morris on display. “In the Next 5 Minutes” takes high-energy items ranging from a rapper’s turntables, a crack pipe, and crystal-meth paraphernalia and embalms them in a dead coating of flat black paint.

There are a few twists. Morris’ transistor radios get a low spark of energy from the bright red and yellow colors they’re cloaked with. And while most of the objects are as featureless as a stretch of Interstate highway, the laptop sports a single, comically oversized keyboard key. Morris’ “Spare” is a silkscreen photo that captures two bowling pins poised at the moment of impact, and “Pause” is a blocky sculpture of a blocky, painted wood flower balanced on the tip of a frail-looking but sturdy stem leaf.

The pieces aren’t as macabre as the works by Michaud and Johnson, but they are as refreshing in this season of sugary excess as a smooth, black lump of coal.


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