Dr. Feelbad

James Cleary's photomontages communicate the inconceivable

You'd never take James Cleary for a mad-scientist type at first encounter. With his long, silvery mane, neatly trimmed goatee, black T-shirt, and baggy green shorts, the artist looks like a textbook bohemian. Plus, he's a terribly nice guy, to the point of surprising his wife Kristin with a double shot of flowers a day or two before their anniversary. "I got 'em at the farmers' market," he explains, almost apologetically. "Usually the bouquets are really small, so I got two. One turned out to be really big."

But that's in the kitchen. As soon as we enter his studio--a smallish room on the first floor of the couple's pea-green south Minneapolis bungalow--we encounter the fruits of Cleary's diabolical imagination, 20 or 30 of them, stacked inert against an otherwise bare wall: a living Mr. Potatohead, a tentacled man whose brain floats just outside his skull, another, newly headless, with a mushroom cloud issuing from his airborne pate and a smaller cloud above it. Luckily, they're all photomontages, built mostly of images cut out of old medical texts and collaged to create new critters.

He's hardly the first to employ the technique, which first found favor with the likes of Hanna Höch and John Heartfield during Berlin Dada's World War I heyday. "Photomontage originated with the impulse to communicate something tempered by the suspicion that communication was impossible," says Cleary. "That's why Dada considered itself anti-art. You look at the time when the movement thrived and it was very similar to now--everything in flux, tumultuous change, nobody sure of exactly what was going to happen next."

Granted, for all their interest in convention-smashing, the Dadas (only chumps say "Dadaists") probably would have found Cleary's musical preferences, which skew toward Black Sabbath and the Butthole Surfers, bewildering, if not downright horrific. Mostly Marxists and devout atheists, they'd have also almost certainly been appalled by his Christianity. (To suggest that Jim Cleary is not easily pigeonholed would be an enormous understatement.) But they'd dig his talent for novel juxtapositions--and his sense of humor.

"This is one of my favorite pieces," he says, hauling out a framed montage and laying it on the massive drafting table that dominates the room. Entitled "Horror Mel (Makin' Francis Bacon)," the construction is topped by a likeness of the painter--one of Cleary's favorites--with the top of his cranium sliced off and crowned by a piece of meat. The modified noggin is attached to a woman's torso, its two pairs of breasts (one set facing up, just below an abdominal incision) mirrored by handless arms connected to the body at both shoulders and hips. Below, a tube of flesh runs into a machine, complete with Joe Lunchbox operator. A trio of human fetuses issues out of the contraption. The caption at the Frankenpicture's base reads: Man has invented several artificial ways to use asexual reproduction to get young people of a desired kind. A common method is to take legs or hands or even single cells from one person and start new people from these "chips off the old block."

"The main thing to me is content," says Cleary. "Essentially, I'm dealing with things I can't necessarily talk to people about--issues that are volatile, unpopular--coupled with my own problems, my own feelings of inadequacy. If something is bothering me on a personal level, I'll usually put it into my art--sickness, war, abortion--or genetic manipulation, which concerns me greatly. We're on the verge of being able to modify ourselves physically any way we want or even design people from scratch. The government might potentially get involved; look at the eugenics movement in the U.S. back in the '20s or the Nazis. I do see a potential resurgence of those concepts. But I think it'll mostly be consumer-driven."

Not atypically, the artist is of two minds about the topic, unable to hide his enthusiasm when discussing GM's potential in other fields: "I think the ultimate art will be creating new organisms. Why do it with drawing, painting, or film, when you can do it with living matter? Can you imagine what the art museum of the future might look like?"

He didn't get to be a conundrum overnight. Born in 1955, Cleary spent the first part of his life in central and northern California. As a child, he planned to follow in his older sibling's footsteps and become a doctor. "My brother was going to college by the time I was four or five," he recalls. "He'd bring home all these textbooks with all these strange medical pictures that I probably wasn't really prepared to see, but loved."

The death of his mother in 1971 threw him into an emotional tailspin. Dropping out of high school in '74, he embarked on an extensive program of pharmaceutical experimentation with a coterie of like-minded thrill-seekers, augmenting a daily wake-and-bake regimen with acid, speed, barbiturates, PCP--whatever the catch of the day happened to be.

"Our whole life was trying to score," he says. "I even started to dabble in petty crime, which I'm not the least bit proud of. Luckily, I didn't get too far into it. I wasn't a sufficiently cool customer."

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