Greeting visitors to the current exhibition at Arts Fund Gallery, “Specimen,” is a kindly, smiley skeleton placed strategically and without explanation. It seems a combination greeter, sentry and memento mori, all at once, befitting a deliciously bizarre and strangely comforting show about pseudo-science, dead things, decontextualized memories, found objects redirected into the direction of art, and other cultural specimens.
Curator Ted Mills, himself an artist, filmmaker, and also journalist-critic (whose writing is oft-found in the pages of the News-Press) had the notion of collecting left-of-center collectors and assemblage artists. The end result, imposing a bit more weird atmosphere than the Arts Fund Gallery has yet known, is a gathering of radiant junk, artfully constructed “cabinets of curios” and general obsessive oddity, all under one roof.
Mr. Mills explains that the idea for the exhibition was inspired right here in the thick of the “Funk Zone,” after seeing Jim O’Mahoney’s museum of oddities; the O’Mahoney piece close to the gallery entrance makes for a nice conceptual portal to what’s in store. His “It’s Another Roadside Attraction” is a quasi-scientific yet partly roadside charlatan’s collection of items, from ivory pieces to “creature skulls, snoot & egg” and vintage hand-held implements of torture, all presented with deadpanning glee.
Across the room is one of the show’s grandiose showpieces, Sue Van Horsen’s “Homage to the Innocents.” In this dense thicket of a “thing” shrine, there are tangled echoes of history, memory, anthropology and an antique kitchen blender which has seen far better days. As the artist writes in her statement, channeling a spirit relevant to much of the work in the gallery, “peering at the mundane and oddball treasures you might begin hearing the voices and stories of your imagination, remembering a simpler time before you knew better.”
Another lavishly large, verging on ostentatious, “cabinet” piece is Michael E. Long’s oddly elegant display, in which individual pieces are tagged as “specimens.”
Less tidy, darker in mood and muse, and seductively creepy is Tracy Beeler’s “Human Jerky and Other Delights.” The jerky in question, half obscured behind the murky and curdled milky glass of the cabinet, is a shriveled and dried human arm, tucked in amongst various mortal and post-mortal bric a brac. This one “object,” more than anything in the gallery, steals the show in its own particular way, exerting the morbid — or naturally human — curiosity appeal of the traveling “Bodies” exhibition. Ms. Beeler’s piece tacitly raises the question: would you give your body parts to art, after the mortal coil rescinds your earthly contract? Sign me up.
Dug Uyesaka, one of the finer and more veteran members of Santa Barbara’s “found object” artist community, in some ways plays it straight with his piece “A Repository of Personal and Familial Endearments in addition to a Gathering of Natural and Manmade Curiosities for Your Contemplation and Enjoyment.” As if demonstrating the index of art materials from which his artistic process begins, he packs a honeycomb of cubbyholes with singular objects of intrigue, while also showing one of his integrated, free-associating assemblages, “Remorse,” which conveys the feeling of the title through blended, object-based invention.
Witty Dan Levin is another longtime assemblage ace in the 805 (except when itinerant), and his piece “The Contents of Calder’s Cabinet” is one of the show’s stronger pieces. In Mr. Levin’s stretch of gallery wall space, a tumbling gusher of junk objects — and “object fall,” so to speak — seems to spew down out of a small wooden box high on the wall, upon which sits a small and delicate, Alexander Calder-like self-standing mobile. Needless to say, there is nothing Calder-esque or delicate in the object-filled story here, which could contain a message about the object-filled brain of the dedicated assemblage artist.
Slightly off to the side of the hunter-gatherer nature of the assemblage artists and cabinet concocters in the show, Ethan Turpin and Jon P. Smith rely on playful history-perverting concepts. Mr. Turpin shows one of his crafty, antiquated stereoscopic works, this one involving a possibly eco-minded photograph of alligators in arctic waters, with the assuring authenticity of a British narrator rambling on. Such narration continues, in a soft chattering blur through headphones in the gallery, in Mr. Smith’s droll “Stone Works,” as if the voice is bubbling up out of rockworks on the gallery wall.
Mr. Mills, fittingly, has his say as an artist with a journalism angle once removed and blissfully transformed into surreal malarkey. His “Workers News” piece is a faded old magazine rack, with photoshopped covers for such periodicals as “Woodchipper Weekly” (no, “Fargo” references are not immediately visible) and “Cat Wonder Weekly (formerly Socialist Worker).”
Further clever tinkering, of objects and ideas, can be found in Norm Reed’s “Wheel of Flies.” This is a rare touchable-art and interactive piece in the show, in which a tilt of a lever sets the gears in sight-sound motion and a rotating gallery of flies is flecked with the occasional gentle clock gong. The artwork evokes the flow of time and the inevitability and underrated beauty of fly life, while tickling our gadget/object intrigue.
These are a few, or several, of my observations and impressions on first blush. Some impulse is telling me to pay another visit, to search for other enticements in the countless crannies of the gallery’s holdings. Maybe I have the “specimen” obsession syndrome, as well.
When: through Aug. 10
Where: Arts Fund Gallery, 205C Santa Barbara St.
Gallery hours: 1 to 5 p.m. Tues. through Fri., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat.
Information: 965-7321, www.artsfundsb.org