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.
"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.
"So I was out in Wisconsin," McBroom says, "out at the Wal-Mart, and I saw a puzzle and said, 'This is the shittiest thing ever...' It was a really bad puzzle. But I decided that what I could do is take this countrified, hokey scene--a mom with her kids--and then add the rooster to shake things up."
McBroom's rooster is reconstructed as though by a mad scientist. It is goofily menacing: colored blue, purple, and orange, with an eggbeater and some football pennants for a tail, and various other corporate logos as body parts. The Cherry Coke symbol, for instance, is the rooster's wattle; the Oldsmobile logo is its beak.
"I find the piece really compelling," says Layland, "very Stranger in a Strange Land. What I like about your work in general is you can always play 'Find the Logo.'"
"I guess one could say it's a gimmick," someone else says, "kind of like Where's Waldo? art. How do you feel about that? If someone goes to the show just looking for all the little hidden things?"
That'd be fine, says McBroom, who's in his element with all this attention. For a time, the discussion breaks away from the here and now, and the group laughs about McBroom's recent folly, when he submitted a painting of a deconstructed, logo-laden duck to the Federal Duck Stamp Program competition. Under this program, which has been run yearly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1949, artists submit paintings of ducks for use on the stamp sold each year to duck hunters. (Although the stamp itself dates back to 1934, the first artists were commissioned rather than chosen by competition.) Usually, the winning paintings are elegantly naturalistic, almost romantic images of ducks flying over a pristine swamp, for example, while an autumn sun sets.
"I like the idea," says McBroom, "of calling companies and proposing to use their logo in my duck stamp. It would be a way to [reimburse me] for all the money I'm shelling out every year on art." In last year's stamp entry, McBroom gave free space in his discombobulated duck to the Jeep, Chevy, and Coca-Cola logos--aptly ironic icons for a conservation stamp. But then there's something innately ironic about a stamp that provides funding for waterfowl habitat conservation but is required for purchase by hunters.
"Why would these companies pay you money?" asks a discussion group member.
"Because it'll get exhibited in Washington [at the annual Duck Stamp show]," replies McBroom.
"So why did you get last place, do you think?"
A few days later, I go to McBroom's house, the house where he grew up, in north Minneapolis to see his duck-stamp entry and his studio. The house, which McBroom describes as "prefab Fifties," is, like most of the houses on the block, a bit depressingly stark. The structure itself is small and boxy. The yard is bare of anything but a ruglike expanse of lawn. In every room of the house, meanwhile, there are samples of McBroom's art--stacked against walls, cabinets, and appliances, on furniture, tabletops, and counters. It is apparent that McBroom, despite having two jobs, is inspired to create rather obsessively. He's self-deprecating about it, though.
"I've been pursuing art for ten years," he says. "I would certainly like others to like it, but it's not necessary, not the be all/end all. If I were making it for the market only, I would make totally different things than I am. For instance, believe it or not, there's a huge market for velvet Elvises."
McBroom is more relaxed today. For one thing, he has dressed down a bit, wearing only gray wool slacks, a blue shirt, and a yellow tie with a repeating pattern of coffee-bean shapes. He goes upstairs to get his duck--calling down, "I've just got so much art up here"--and returns a few moments later with a large framed image. The duck painting itself is a mere seven inches by nine inches, but it has been matted and put into the frame along with a copy of the rules book, the entry form, and the postal insurance form he used when mailing it.
"I want to start my own competition," McBroom says--"to go nuts with it, maybe allowing people to use words. I'd love it if someone sent a recipe for duck." I examine the painting--its fauvist color scheme of toilet-bowl blue, electric rust, and bright yellow, its swamp reenvisioned as a cubist cartoon, its duck scarcely recognizable as it falls apart into a mass of logos, odd shapes, and swirls of color.
"I fully expected to be disqualified," he says. "But they were really nice about it, and I learned a lot about ducks in the process." He flips through a copy of the rules book, which plots out the four or five ducks that can be used as subjects in the next 15 years of the competition, and he points to 2004. "I'm really looking forward to the hooded merganser."
We examine others of his works: a deconstructed black-light poster of a panther, which he has copied, down to the blue type on the white frame; some treacly images he has made out of colored sequins on black velvet; a wedding-cake figurine made out of computer circuitry, doll parts, and small toy spaceships; and, here and there, in corners and under tables, several dozen gremlinlike cat and lemur sculptures. Afterward, we go into the basement so he can paint in preparation for his show, which opens in just ten days.
"Do you mind if I put on some music?" McBroom asks, tucking his tie into his pocket and putting on a tape of the Police's "Message in a Bottle." It's a typical basement, maybe a bit cleaner and drier than most, but still filled with the trappings of a lifetime collected on shelves and tucked in nooks.
McBroom has made his ad hoc studio out of one neat corner of the basement by placing a sheet on the ground and leaning a four-foot-by-six-foot canvas against some appliances. The floor and surroundings are oddly free of the paint drips and splatterings that are typical of most studios.
The reasons for this quickly become apparent as McBroom carefully prepares to paint. He begins by falling to his knees and squeezing various colors of acrylic paint onto the surface of an odd object, about the size and shape of a boom box, with plasticky spires and ridges of color that suggest a Magic Rocks kit gone haywire. "That's my palette," he says. "It's a tackle box. I've been using it for years. Want to see how heavy it is?"
McBroom kneels while he paints. He also talks constantly--about his family, about his life, about his ex-girlfriend, about his work. "I'm just telling stories," he says. "That's what I do best."
The current painting, which McBroom hopes to have in his show, is of "the three states of ichthyosaur evolution." McBroom works into one of the three black silhouetted fish figures, painting ideograms and logos where white bones should appear. The background of the painting is blue and flat except for a bra that has been attached to the surface and stiffened so that the cups come out from the blue field.
McBroom paints delicately, with small, jabbing brushstrokes. The side of his painting hand rests on the canvas, dragging across the surface as though he's writing. It is clearly an obsessive-compulsive manner of painting, very much in opposition to the manic style that you might expect of an expressionistic painter: Contrast it with Jackson Pollock's sweeping splatters and spaghetti lines of drips, and Willem de Kooning's explosions of brushstrokes broken by long, contemplative pauses. Yet McBroom becomes so immersed in his handiwork at times that he occasionally has to shift his position to release the pressure on his knees.
"I do normally paint on my knees," he says, "or else I sit cross-legged, or in a catcher's crouch. When I'm done blocking, I'll probably sit with the painting in my lap. But I've never used an easel. I'm more comfortable sitting on the floor." By way of explanation, he tells how he got used to sitting on the floor as a child after the couch was damaged and his parents could not afford to replace it.
By this method, in this basement corner, McBroom plies away week after week through the year, accumulating 25 to 30 finished paintings annually, and slowly filling up his house.
When I see McBroom one last time, just a few days before the opening, he's wearing a gray suit again, with a white shirt and burgundy tie, and he seems a little nervous. He says the hanging is about two-thirds completed now, and a quick survey of the space reveals an already sprawling array of color and fury. Paintings are hung on the wall salon-style--that is, atop one another and nearly filling the wall from floor to ceiling. There are about 30 of them: brightly colored, indecipherable abstractions with fragments of animal parts and of the material culture that surrounds us--corporate logos, bits of popular imagery, cartoon characters, street signs, and mundane objects, such as a perfume bottle or pair of scissors. The overall effect is as though someone took a batch of Pop Art paintings, threw them into a blender, and then splattered the mess onto the gallery wall.
Contrasted with the paintings are the 15 or so terrifying sculptures hung on makeshift plywood shelves and suspended from the ceiling by cords. The sculptures are generally easier to comprehend than the paintings; they're more cohesive, making use of actual found objects. But they're also much more frightening, replete with sharp teeth, jarring juxtapositions of materials, and the terror of the familiar. These are creatures you'd hate to meet at night.
"I think people see a lot of horror in my work," says McBroom as he works at drilling holes in the ceiling to hang more shelves. "Several friends say that they think there's something not quite right in the work. For the most part, I find them funny more than anything. Though I do have to admit I did some off-color cartoons in high school that got me kicked off the newspaper staff."
I have to agree that there's something funny and irreverent about McBroom's cavalier manner of using copyrighted logos and images in his work. There's something brazenly anti-consumerist about the "Daffy Duck Pez Dispenser" he has made by reshaping the duck figure with oozing and tumescent bits of plastic and metal, and re-creating an action-figure-like box to hold the art. There's probably something a little dangerous about it, too.
"It's a lot easier to get people to accept things with some humor in it," says McBroom, "without hitting people over the head with the message. If they want to look deeper in it, that's great."
"What is the message?" I ask.
"Basically, it's an environmental one," he replies while pressing his drill against the concrete ceiling of Gus Lucky's. "And an art-handling one."
He curses suddenly: "This is the worst ceiling I've ever had to drill into in my life. I went through two drill bits yesterday."
Finally, he finishes drilling the four holes, and screws O-hooks into each one. He threads each O-hook with a nylon cord, ties one end of the cord in place, and ties the other to an O-hook in each corner of a piece of plywood. Once the makeshift shelf has been put in place and leveled out, McBroom climbs the ladder with a sculpture of a lemur in hand. He slips while trying to put the lemur, which is about the size of a fat beagle, on the shelf, and seems about to drop the sculpture until I offer a hand. "Thanks," he says. "Do you find these superficial? People have told me they're superficial."
I tell him no, then ask if he thinks he's driven to make art. He pauses to consider the question.
"People often ask that," says McBroom, "but I don't think I spend nearly enough time on the art... I basically live my art. I try not to let it take over everything, but I have to do it."
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