No More Pooping Bambis

Chris Mars is a master painter of sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops
Courtesy of Ox-Op Gallery

Half an hour into the second opening night of the "The Juxtapoz Group Show 2006," the Ox-Op Gallery is packed. A few members of the babbling throng are even looking at what's on the walls. Take the two tykes laughing at Two Heads, Chris Ryniak's cartoonishly hyperreal portrayal of a bicephalic hillbilly in flight from his burning shack. They'd probably be convulsed even if the hayseed's dick weren't hanging out.

Three paintings down, a tweedy, 40ish-looking couple confronts Chris Mars's Descendents of Hanford with amazement--though not because of the painting itself. "Forty-thousand dollars?" the male half asks, enunciating slowly. "This artist must be awfully famous."

Dude doesn't realize that Mars probably priced the painting so high because he doesn't want to part with it. He's been using the tactic for years and all it's done is drive the value of his work up and get it into more museums. The oil painting depicts a convocation of specters in various states of dissolution and decay, all gathered around a mysterious stone structure. As in all of Mars's paintings, the monstrous entities radiate dignity, vulnerability, and a gentle inner beauty.

Having even one of the artist's works in the show is a coup for Ox-Op owner Tom Hazelmyer, who has been courting Mars since day one of the gallery, three years ago. It's only fitting that he'd get his way for the Ox-Op's biggest exhibition to date--and its last.

"It's the smoking ban," Hazelmyer says of his plan to shutter the gallery, which has operated out of the bar he owns on Washington Avenue. With his black wool toque, short, boxy jacket, and long goatee, the underground mogul is beginning to look like one of the complex's younger patrons--though he's been a mainstay on the local scene for two decades. "The gallery has always been a more-or-less break-even proposition, but all the money for expenses--from the everyday stuff to flying artists in for openings--comes from the bar. Unlike a lot of places in town, we're not seriously hurting, but we have had to do some belt-tightening. I don't want to have to cut any more shifts or lay anybody off."

It's too bad. Ox-Op filled an unoccupied niche in these parts, mixing sold-out exhibitions by the high-profile lowbrow likes of Tiki-god Shag and creature king Gary Baseman with shows by lesser-known locals. (Minneapolis's own Charles S. Anderson graced the Ox-Op walls with the image of a deer taking a dump.) The gallery's emphasis on accessibility has moved a few naysayers to dismiss its offerings as mere illustration. But, as a purveyor of fun stuff you actually want to hang on your walls, it's been peerless.

Hazelmyer takes pains to point out that he's only shutting down the brick-and-mortar entity, while expanding the gallery's online presence and launching a new line of art toys. Likewise, he hopes to continue the relationship with SooVac that commenced with part one of "Juxtapoz," which opened in SooVac's Lyndale Avenue space.

Also, next year finds Hazelmyer touring Europe and the U.S. with Dalek, providing soundtrack music for the graffiti-prodigy's animated shorts. "I had to let something go," he says. He's not just talking about the gallery. In lieu of the guitar he wielded with his old band Halo of Flies, the punk-turned-neo-industrialist is now playing a computer.

"Finally, everything I hated about making music is gone," he says, lighting a cigarette, "bandmates, producers, collective decisions." To accommodate overflow from the project (which also entails a book/CD combo to be released by Ipecac), he's reviving Amphetamine Reptile--the label he ran in the '90s--for a series of 7-inch single collaborations with the likes of Craig Finn and Grant Hart. (Tangentially, Hart is currently making an album with Montreal maximalists Godspeed You Black Emperor.)

"I never truly abandon anything," he snickers. "Sure, I might stuff it away in a closet. But I always water it just enough so that it'll still be alive when I want to put it back to work."

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