Animal Husbandry

Local painter and sculptor Rob McBroom brings a feral sense of resourcefulness to Zoo

Making art is rarely an instantaneous or easy task. Ask any artist you know, and he or she will confirm that it takes profound mental effort and rigorous practice to be able to make something beautiful, particularly on demand or under deadline. Despite the wisecracking naysayers who scoff at paintings and say, "I could paint that," making art is mental torture; it is about facing down grave and soul-rattling doubt. Which explains why the uncertain artist Rob McBroom--who, at age 27, is facing the opening of his first-ever solo gallery show--is sitting inside Gus Lucky's Gallery on a hot Wednesday evening with four other artists, intently discussing his latest painting and generally seeking support from his peers.

With his round face, slightly flushed cheeks, and short, reddish hair, McBroom looks even younger than his years. He smiles with a kind of hasty eagerness, his mouth open, his upper teeth concave, and his eyes a bit suspicious. By day, McBroom is a part-time guard at Walker Art Center, and a customer-service rep at Roseville's telephone directory-assistance office. Most nights for the past decade, he has inhabited his home studio, painting idiosyncratically expressionistic images of animals, or sculpting crude and terrible facsimiles of them that, on the surface, scarcely make sense as art. For instance, there are McBroom's frightful lemur sculptures: Pieced together from various objects and machine parts, they resemble makeshift replicas created by kids who can't afford toys. There are pictures of horribly reconfigured cartoon characters, comic-book heroes, and endless animals, all of which McBroom has found fascinating since his youth. Everything is painted or sculpted in an obsessive manner, his wild colors rendered in smallish, tightly controlled brushstrokes, his sculptures very detailed regardless of the odd materials employed.

McBroom, despite his great attention to it, is insecure about his art. He has never studied art formally and has not attended college. At Gus Lucky's, he sits with his legs crossed, ankle on knee, and slouches self-consciously. And the most interesting thing about him is that, even in this heat, he's wearing a gray suit, long-sleeved shirt, and tie. He shrugs when asked about it.

Pet project: Rob McBroom and friend
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Pet project: Rob McBroom and friend

"I always wear a suit," says McBroom. "Originally it was just something I did--there was no real reason. But the more people asked about it, the more I thought to do it." He pauses, then adds as an aside: "John [Whitney, Gus Lucky's co-owner] thinks it's because I separate myself emotionally from people. I grew up in a fairly non-demonstrative family."

Gus Lucky's, where McBroom's Zoo exhibit will run, specializes in nurturing artists such as McBroom--the vast contingent of young and creative people trying to make their first mark on the world--by giving them a place to show. And as further care for such neophytes, Gus Lucky's provides the space for an artists' discussion group. On any given Wednesday night, you might find 10 to 12 tortured souls opening themselves up to criticism and suggestions from their fellow artists, drinking, and otherwise reveling in the intensity of their struggles.

"This group is for people to find resolution," says Whitney, who offers gin and tonics to everyone. The group is smaller tonight than usual, with only a half-dozen people. Whether this is due to the unseasonable heat or to the fact that word got out that an arts writer would be joining them is unclear. In any case, the atmosphere is casual. The current gallery show comprises a vast survey of distraction: a Styrofoam cube buzzing with feedback and occasional chirping music; a video projector screening a scene of nebulous fuzz; and a reel-to-reel player running its tape in a loop on spools situated around the gallery space. As I situate myself in the circle and wait for the critique to start, an artist named Michelle Layland leans over and asks me: "In the meantime, is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable? Like maybe a foot rub?"

This free-for-all notwithstanding, the artists' critique in general is a ubiquitous self-improvement method no doubt employed for as long as there has been art. All it takes to put together a critique is a painting or a sculpture and some people interested enough in art to make a few stray comments about it. Nowadays, any artist who comes up through the art-education system will sit through hundreds of such events. Most likely it's the element of social interaction in the process, helping to counteract the isolating effects of artmaking, that accounts for its popularity.

At Gus Lucky's, the critique starts slowly. "Who wants to go first?" asks Whitney. No one responds, but eventually it is agreed that we will first discuss Layland's work: a small, eight-inch-high model of an architectural interior, perhaps a bedroom, done in cream colors and with a small red couch against one wall.

"This was an excuse to make a tiny fainting couch," Layland begins. "I've always wanted a fainting couch."

The comments are typical of any critique. "Would you be interested in doing this life-size?" asks one group member. "That would take a lot of money," says Layland with a laugh. Others talk about stage sets and other issues. There are a few practical suggestions for the artist, and not much else. But when the focus shifts to Rob McBroom's work, a blue-framed jigsaw puzzle of a mother hen, several yellow chicks, and a country quilt pattern on which the artist has imposed a wildly colored robotic, roosterlike figure, the discussion picks up. Mostly this is because of McBroom himself, who has a knack for telling a story.

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