Dr. Feelbad

Sean Smuda

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."

In '76, a heavy flashback and the accompanying revelation took Cleary away from drug buddies--and drugs--for good. But the experience left its mark. "I didn't really realize how bad it was until, one day, I went to take out the garbage and nothing looked familiar to me. I was spaced-out, fuzzy, all the time. It was then that I finally started figuring out what to do with myself. I had, basically, fucked up my mind. I had to come up with something that would make me useful. Maybe I can be of some worth to society, I thought, by communicating, with my altered perception, how I see the world. That's what's driven me ever since."

He earned an associate's degree in drafting, working full-time, going to school part-time, and drawing in his free time, accidentally generating a little controversy at his first group show in 1986. "It was at this gallery in Auburn, California, the kind of place that usually shows landscapes, pleasant watercolors, and such. For the first time ever, they decided to get some jurors from UC Davis, which is how I ended up in the show. Some of the people involved thought one of my drawings looked like a vagina. It wasn't intentional, but the drawing got pulled. There was even a little article in the local paper. I've had a couple of similar incidents since."

It's easy to see how even Cleary's early work might have offended small-town sensibilities. Reaching up toward a shelf, he pulls down a thick portfolio filled with drawings of a slightly later vintage--from his days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he enrolled in 1988. While not particularly explicit for the most part, they radiate an intense sexuality comparable to the work of Swiss Surrealist Hans Bellmer.

"I love Bellmer, but I didn't discover him until I'd already started doing these," he says. A lot of the time, after I've started doing something, I'll start looking outside myself for reassurance. I came across a Bellmer book in the school library. Bingo!"

High art and the illustration he learned to love at a very early age aren't the only things that inform Cleary's work; he's a nearly lifelong admirer of Mad magazine--especially the early ones (once again, thanks to his brother). Cleary also holds kustom kar kingpin Ed "Big Daddy" Roth--whom he met at a hot rod show in Chicago--in the highest regard. Chicago, America's earliest adapter in the realm, also introduced him to the early outsider artists that he largely identifies with--particularly the ones who did time in mental institutions.

"I'm still in kind of a fog," he says of his flashback's extended aftermath. "Part of the problem is that it's not apparent, so unless they've had some kind of similar experience, people really don't understand the problem. But I see it as a gift, in some ways. At the very least, my situation allows me to see things a bit differently."

The self-professed burnout's singular vision must have been at least partially responsible for compelling the Minneapolis Institute of Art's curatorial poobahs to pair him up with Chris Mars for a two-person exhibition that opens on September 23. It's an inspired match: the latter, a self-taught, neo-Old Master in lowbrow's clothing, is fueled largely by the abuses his older brother has suffered at the hands of the psychiatric establishment during a lifelong battle with schizophrenia. A trained artist who draws heavily on pop culture, Cleary derives much of his creative impetus from what used to be called "the art of the insane," along with a constantly fulminating sense of humor.

"My work is about the conflict between our arrogance and our ability to love," he says, "to help one another. Plus, I have this perverse desire to see something really--stupid."

Ecchy Homo: Photomontages by James F. Cleary B.F.A., and Subderma: New and Recent Paintings by Chris Mars, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 23 through November 20, 2005, 612.870.3131

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