Growing up in the 1980s, one of my favorite stores at the mall was Spencer’s Gifts. Spencer’s was (and maybe still is?) like Hot Topic rendered in black velvet. At this teenage dream factory, you could pick up a Ouija board, a Yoda T-shirt, crotchless panties and a bong. All incense, black-light and Day-Glo, it was like stepping into your id: a seething, if relatively harmless, dark fantasy.
Dead or Alive, You’re Coming With Me, sculptor Miguel Rodriguez’s installation at the Winchester Center Gallery, has a very similar vibe. Ominously lit and oddly campy, it has a darkness that gives way to a playful sense of humor, sharp sociopolitical interest and a cool ’80s reverence.
- Through October 23
- Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
- Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Winchester Cultural Center
A recipient of the Nevada Arts Council’s 2009 Nevada artist fellowship, Rodriguez is on a roll. He’s just completed three large sculptures for the Clark County Wetlands Park, while working on a third for a Miami hotel. And last spring’s Australopithecus in Repose was a thoughtful installation that transformed Downtown’s Fallout gallery.
This streak continues with Dead or Alive. The Winchester Gallery is a notoriously difficult space, with one entire wall fanning into a large arc. Smart choices turn these oddities into advantages. First, Rodriguez covers the entire room in black paper, so that the prominence of the walls is minimized and the room becomes a cave. Then he maximizes the dramatic curving spatial feature by installing a row of massive cast relief portraits, also in black, along the length of the wall. And who is featured in these iterative portraits? None other than John McCain.
The only overt political reference in the exhibition, it is jarring in the sheer force of its repetition. Embedded across the surface of each forehead is the word “Slowbleed”—a sly reference to the current state of the GOP? The exceptionally chilling strategy of the replicated McCains is Rodriguez’s application of a military term called “force multiplier”—“weapons and technology that greatly increase the efficacy of an individual soldier.” More is better, or at least, more increases the psychological, war-machine creep factor.
Competing on the opposite wall is the head of an elephant, taxidermy-like with tusks and all. The artist claims that any correlation between a giant red elephant and the Republican Party occurred to him after installation; the coincidence is hard to swallow. Lording over the room, the piece was meant to be a “societal spirit animal,” a symbol for wisdom and strength—and it works to that effect. The goofy façade of a leering McCain seems held in check by the disapproving pachyderm.
What makes black walls even more fun? Glow-in-the-dark glitter paint and black light, of course. Shimmering Mack trucks and hot rods skim the wall’s surface in red and blue glitter paint (GOP and Dems?), careening on a collision course at the room’s only corner. Two large-scale sculptural relief skulls with exposed glowing brains complete the camp-goth ambience.
If you didn’t already feel like you were in some kind of perverse right-wing marijuana den, then look no further than the infinity mirrors. They flank one of the skulls, absolutely begging for the smell of incense. A DIY salute to sci-fi, these pieces sort of place the show. Funny and odd, their half-serious homemade outer-space is very appealing, particularly in contrast to the only truly serious presence in the room: a giant red elephant head.
The phrase “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is lifted from RoboCop, the late-’80s movie about a law-enforcement cyborg manipulated by the system. Rodriguez cites the film as an influence, along with Tron, He-Man and others.
More alluded to than directly referenced, these ’80s cultural influences haunt the psychology of the installation: a futuristic fantasy peering inside the mind of a man at the mercy of a system, any system. But like an awesome sci-fi B-movie, Dead or Alive’s successes lie in its perceived flaws. The theatricality of its psychedelic homemade Halloween fright-fest vibe smartly provides humor as a point of access for thinking about really scary things. It also slyly suggests that our greatest demons spring from our very own hands.