Alternate universes at play inside Snidle gallery
Picture, if you will, Popeye the Sailor Man strolling nonchalantly past a fire-engine-red antique panel truck upon which a 25-foot-tall 1940s pinup girl in a sombrero and snug, red, single-piece bathing suit perches and preens her graceful legs in front of a vintage airliner. From behind the truck a gargantuan arm brandishes a beaker of swirling green liquid, the fumes of which coalesce into an amorphous orange cloud whose edges reveal it to be a sky-obscuring slab of raw bacon looming menacingly above an oblivious suburban housewife in shorts and sleeveless blouse casually steering her riding lawnmower past the tentacles of a larval insect body with a gape-mouthed head and four eyes.
That, believe it or not, is an abbreviated description of the content of one small section of Oakland-based artist Michael Mew’s “Wings Over Unnationals” ($1,000), on display as part of the Masterful Collages of Michael Mew exhibit showing through July at James Snidle Fine Arts. The entire piece is about 30-by-9 inches and the intricacy and craftsmanship of Mew’s collage technique is, to put it mildly, astounding. Using images collected from vintage comic books, astronomical and anatomical texts, advertisements, military and industrial promotional pieces and religious iconography, Mew meticulously constructs surreal scenarios that reward intense scrutiny with layer upon layer of suggested meaning and connection.
As the great surrealist and collage artist Max Ernst defined it, “The collage technique is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level—and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together.” Mew’s art seems the epitome of Ernst’s definition, and as Mew’s online biography states, his “fascination with surrealism, which originated during his college studies, led him to compose using loose associations that arise from his working process. Accumulating images, he trusts these subconscious connections to [gel] into lyrical, often pointed narratives with intricate and cohesive internal connections.”
This highfalutin’ biographical portrait of the finished products of Mew’s art leaves out any mention of the very crucial element of sardonic humor that often underlies the imagery and words he chooses to employ. For instance, in the 2008 piece “Get Real,” a cartoonish tin toy robot stands in front of a weathered 7-Up advertisement gripping a copy of the 12-cent comic book Magnus Robot Fighter in its red claw while the slogan “Robots Rule” floats in decoratively abstract script above the product logo. There may indeed be “intricate and cohesive internal connections” between the elements of the image, and perhaps even a “pointed narrative” regarding the use of mechanically produced art as a means of inducing a Pavlovian craving for industrialized thirst-quenchers, but it’s also a pleasant and sort of goofy image that will more than likely evoke an innocent smile in the casual observer.
Mew also employs the surrealist technique of the repeated motif or image placed in differing contexts in different compositions. Several of the pieces in this show use images of Life Savers candy as a central, albeit ambiguous, symbol. Robots and superheroes also pop up repeatedly, along with oil cans, mechanical devices and garish Japanese comic-book lettering. In his most recent works, Mew has begun using straight pins as an additional compositional device. The shiny chrome pins (some with glow-in-the-dark heads) add a 3-D element to the otherwise multilayered but essentially flat collages. The placement of the pins and their tiny shadows emphasizes the sharply precise quality of Mew’s work and draws attention to the nature of collage as a way of literally sticking images together that would not normally be on the same page.
Displayed in tight groupings in the homey front room of the James Snidle Fine Arts gallery, just a block off of Main Street, Mew’s work offers glimpses into alluring alternative dimensions filled with thrilling wonder and astounding adventures—a manifestation of transcendental comic consciousness right here in our own backyard.