Though it sits in an adobe building just a couple of blocks from the Plaza, Pop Gallery hangs the sort of underground lowbrow and pop surrealist art associated with warehouse shows in Los Angeles or high-end tattoo shops in South Florida. The gallery exhibits the work of artists steeped in the bright-light street aesthetics of hot-rod and tattoo culture or drawn to the freaks-and-geeks caprices of vinyl toys and Betty Boop cartoons. Many of the gallery’s artists developed their talents far outside fine-art circles, instead building their technical expertise through work in Hollywood animation, medical illustration, tattoo artistry, drawings for children’s books, and skateboard art. On Friday, May 21, the gallery opens a new exhibit called
Pop Femme Sugar Coated Strange, as part of an annual show that showcases its female artists.
“We coined the term ‘ pop modern.’ It’s not just lowbrow; it’s not just surrealism; it’s not whimsical,” said Shyla Throckmorton-McDowell, who operates the gallery alongside her husband, Michael McDowell. Whatever the term, the gallery’s offerings teem with the sort of high-energy, street-inspired pop art often found in Juxtapoz and Hi Fructose, two key magazines that chronicle the lowbrow movement.
To anyone raised on comic books, sci-fi, graffiti culture, manga, graphic novels, horror films, and Adult Swim animation, it should come as a welcome sign of overdue respect to see these works hanging on gallery walls. Like many working in the lowbrow genre, several of the show’s artists ditched art school and came by their technical mastery of drawing and illustration via other routes. Lisa Sarto worked as an animator on Avatar and
How to Train Your Dragon. Miss Mindy is an animator on the set of Nickelodeon’s The Mighty B!, a show co-created by Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live. Marie Sena is a tattoo artist who has drawn body parts and organ systems as a medical illustrator. C.J. Metzger is well known as a designer of urban vinyl toys, action figures whose style borrows heavily from hip-hop culture and Japanese street art.
One of the standout artists of the exhibition is Aunia Kahn. A self-taught artist, Kahn creates painting collage photos that look like haunting film stills from 1950s sci-fi and noir movies. She is the model for nearly all of her works, appearing as a goth-vamp-rockabilly antiheroine. Despite the provocative theatricality of her work, Kahn said in an interview with
Pasatiempo that her work is nakedly autobiographical. “My life felt like a damn cinema growing up. I had a SWAT team at my house growing up. The first two years I exhibited my work, I cried like a little baby. You might as well take a private journal and plaster it on the wall and let 50 people go see it. They know everything about you.” Kahn recently created a deck of tarot cards, illustrating all 78 major and minor arcana in stunning pop-surrealist settings. Copies of her tarot deck are on sale at the exhibit.
Another featured artist is Carrie Ann Baade, who works less in the vein of lowbrow and more in the tradition of surrealism. Her oil painting Our Lady of Perpetual Indulgence is a decadent romp, featuring a preposterously endowed (perhaps surgically so) woman bathing in a gold tub with a gaggle of baby pink elephants. Drawing heavily on the gods, demons, and monsters of world mythology, Baade creates rococo images rich in allegorical meaning. In one painting of her Vanitas of the Honey
Bee series, a bird clutches an hourglass in its claws, looking scornfully at a ladybug whose head has been replaced by a human skull.
The work of Kristen Margiotta is heavily influenced by director Tim Burton’s wide-eyed gothic style of animation. Margiotta illustrated the children’s book Better Haunted Homes and Gardens,
published last year. It is a whimsical Halloween tale of real estate, in which Ivy Spookerton, a ghostly yet adorable young lady, seeks the perfect haunted house in which to live with her many pets. While the text is aimed squarely at grade-school children, the dark quirkiness of the haunted houses will appeal to those who watched The Nightmare Before Christmas when they were younger. The gallery shows Margiotta’s original oil-on-board works that she painted for the book.
Sculpture tends to be an underrepresented medium in pop surrealism. Lisa Sartor remedies that deficiency with bronze pre-cast clay models of pin-up cowgirls reclining on splittimber fences and riding mechanical bulls. Sartor spent years working in the special-effects departments of movie studios as well as creating toy prototypes.
Some of the show’s most fanciful works come from an artist known simply as Miss Mindy. Beside being an animator for Nickelodeon, she is also a vinyl toy artist. Miss Mindy takes delight in throwback whimsy. She recently compiled her woodcut paintings of tarted-up paper dolls into a book called Miss
Mindy’s Sassy Paper Doll Bonanza. The original paintings from the book are on display at the Pop Femme show. The exhibit also features work by her sister, C.J. Metzger. Metzger shares many of her sister’s aesthetics, delving even further into the fantasy genre of elves and imps. She illustrated the children’s book Princess La La & The Little Bee.
Santa Fe native Marie Sena uses a bracing biker-carnival style to create watercolors so deeply saturated in color that they look like tattoos. “I think that some people have the misconception that watercolor has to be transparent and billowy,” Sena said in an email interview from Spain, where she is on a month-long tattoo-artist residency. “I build up my paintings with many, many layers of watercolor, which gives it a richness and more of an opaque feel. I also make my own gesso from a very old recipe that absorbs watercolor paint perfectly.”
With a degree in medical illustration, Sena combines her knowledge of human anatomy with a flair for the bizarre. Her painting The Morning After ... (part of a diptych that also includes The Night Before ...) is a comical take on the “bearded ladies” of circus-freak shows. Much of her work seems to conjure up the spirits of Popeye and P.T. Barnum — she uses flamboyantly colored images of leopard-skin-suit-wearing weight lifters, top-hatted pelicans, and beleaguered sailors trapped inside the bellies of whales. “I also tend to live in the past with my paintings. I have a real affinity for old sea tales, vintage hairdos, ancient folklore, mythical creatures,” Sena said. “I can remember looking through my great-grandpa’s collection of Life magazines from the ’ 30s and being completely transfixed by the richness and composition of the illustrations.”
Though the show opens Friday, May 21, the opening gala party doesn’t take place until Saturday, May 29. Works by exhibiting artists, along with additional items, will be raffled off; the proceeds benefit Southwest CARE Center, a New Mexico HIV/AIDS outreach group. Miss Mindy will also be on hand, making drawings of clients who pre-pay for a half-hour session.
Aunia Kahn: American Political, painted photo collage on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
Carrie Ann Baade: Our Lady of Perpetual Indulgence, 2010, oil on panel, 18 x 12 inches
Marie Sena: Saztec, giclée on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
Miss Mindy: Goddess 1, mixed media on paper, 40 x 15 inches
Kristen Margiotta: Illustration #2 (Ivy Spookerton), 2009, oil on board, 8.75 x 9 inches