Fear Factor 

Can a brand-new gallery on Madison put you in the Halloween spirit?

Halloween is a holiday about confronting and, through humor and ritual, coming to terms with the terrors of the unknown: murder, mayhem, monsters, death, and decay. We do so by creating artificial terrors: haunted houses to startle us, cornfield mazes to get lost in, spooky films and scary costumes to get us in the mood. But the imagery of Halloween has been co-opted by business, standardized, and sold back to us in plastic black-and-orange packages. We are provided with laughing skulls, dancing skeletons, wacky witches, grinning ghosts, and electric jack-o-lanterns. Movie monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman have also carved a campy niche in Halloween iconography, as have more contemporary (and more conventionally named) Hollywood ghouls like Freddy, Jason, and Michael Meyers. The question is, given such image saturation, can Halloween be scary anymore? Or has it, like Christmas, become so commercialized that it's lost all intrinsic meaning?

If anyone could cut through the crap and show us the comic absurdities of corporate terror or make with truly frightening imagery, I was certain that the collective of young artists who have opened Gallery, a handsome no-frills art space at 656 Madison, could do so. Oh well, it's at least a great space.

So just what do the kids think is scary these days? Doll parts. There were lots of disembodied doll parts on display. Clowns. Blood. Jack-o-lanterns. Skeletons. You know, the usual suspects. The big problem with the show "Creepy Things from Under Your Bed" is that it's not terribly creepy. Neither does it show us the problems inherent with creating scary imagery in a culture accustomed to watching surgical procedures on PBS or seeing brutal murders on the nightly news. Was Satan ever conjured? A goat blown-up? A side of beef butchered for all to see? Sadly, no. The dominant image in the show comes in the form of an unattributed acrylic-on-canvas painting of a man in a peacoat with a pumpkin where his head should be. Minus the pumpkin, it's the sort of thing you could probably pick up at a starving-artist's sale -- accomplished but hardly cutting-edge. And not scary. Another painting (of a disembodied doll head, surprise, surprise), titled Technicolor Beauty Queen, looks like a sweet female version of Chucky on Prozac with big blue eyelashes. Couldn't scare a baby. In fact, of all the paintings, only Chainsaw, a drippy bit of action painting in dried-blood colors ranging from red to black (and a splotch of green for contrast), provides enough mystery to create a sense of unease. The unstretched canvas looks like the drop cloth designed to mask the dastardly deed of an Edgar Allan Poe character and might have been better displayed on the floor, rather than hung on the wall.

Sculpture fares better here. Natasha Tejwani's Forgotten shows us severed hands and mutilated faces as large as life, done in mint-blue glass, and emerging from shallow graves of dirt and dried flowers. Tres creepy. Gary Bergland's Legs, a bloody mannequin leg mounted on a dowel with a headless Barbie doll dangling from the toe, is more silly than scary but would make a lovely centerpiece at any fright-night gathering. Todd Fisher's mixed-media installation, Womb, is, as the title implies, a giant, bloody womb -- the kind that might birth a man-eating alien or a mutant bent on world domination. If only it could be internally lit or move in some way. As is, it's pretty lifeless, and that lessens the fear factor. Fisher's ceramic offering, tile cake, isn't scary at all, unless you're an obsessive-compulsive with a mortal fear of stale strawberry shortcake.

Only photographer Lee Rogers, still working with easy imagery, gets everything right. One small, untitled black-and-white photograph shows a cherubic, chubby-cheeked baby doll, naked as the day it was molded, stabbing a pencil into the burned-out eye of another doll. The image is unsettling, preying on the same dark childhood fears that made the film Trilogy of Terror such a cult classic. Priced under a hundred bucks, it's also an affordable way to ensure that your children grow up sick and twisted.

My grandmother, now 93, used to tell me stories about going to the "Hainted House" on Halloween night when she was a young girl. In a room so dark you couldn't see a thing, participants would be asked to assist with the embalming of a dead body. "You are now washing the hair," someone was told, before being handed a dummy head hung with corn silk. "You are now removing the eyes," someone else was told, before being handed a pair of gapes. "You are now removing the guts," someone else was told, as his or her hands were dipped in a bucket of pumpkin innards. Cheesy? Sure it was. And, like all good performance art, it required the participants to temporarily suspend their disbelief and play along. But in the end it was about confronting your darkest fears and overcoming them. "Creepy Things from Under Your Bed" is just about looking at things we've been told are scary -- and from a comfortable distance at that.

At Gallery, 656 Madison, through November 12th.


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