Life hadn’t been easy for Mark Hogancamp. Married and divorced, a Navy vet, he sketched superheroes and designed showrooms for a local lighting company while struggling with alcoholism and homelessness. Twelve years ago, he suffered a near-fatal beating at a Kingston bar that left him disabled. The loss of his Medicaid-covered rehabilitation therapy a year later was a big blow, but he began, on a whim, constructing a miniature World War II-era village out of scrap plywood on the grounds of his trailer, located near the Rondout Creek.
Obtaining many his supplies from J&J Hobbies in Uptown Kingston, Hogancamp began populating the teeny town with meticulously costumed dolls, representing a cast of characters based on people he knew. He arranged the dolls in dramatic tableaux and photographed them to tell an unfolding narrative of revenge, love and redemption.
Hogancamp often pulled a toy jeep loaded with his costumed action figures while walking along the road to the convenience store, which led to his discovery by local photographer David Naugle and a feature in Esopus, a sumptuous, locally published cultural magazine. The article piqued the interest of Jeffrey Malmberg, who subsequently spent the next four years making a film about Hogancamp. Titled after the name of his fictional town, Marwencol, and ending with a showing of Hogancamp’s photographs in a New York art gallery, the film, released in 2010, was widely shown at film festivals and on PBS, leading to articles about Hogancamp in The New York Times and other leading periodicals.
Hogancamp became a kind of outsider art-world star, yet, in fear of jeopardizing his disability payments, upon which he survives — a pittance that sometimes necessitated eating just one meal a day — he was reluctant to sell his work. But with the opening of “Crash Landing,” a show of Hogancamp’s photographs at One Mile Gallery, the work is finally for sale. (Depending on size, they cost $400 or $550 mounted, $50 less if unmounted).
At the opening last Saturday, Hogancamp was periodically in attendance, chatting to visitors in a rumpled, khaki-colored uniform, as if he had just emerged from his fictional town. The artist is fond of dressing up, sometimes in more outrageous garb: it emerged from the film that it was Hogancamp’s cross-dressing proclivities that provoked the brutal beating by young thugs. (The film ends with Hogancamp attending hisManhattanopening in stockings and high heels, a kind of liberation.)
His story, as an outsider artist struggling with disability, loneliness (the film recounts several of his unrequited loves; Hogancamp has since gained a girlfriend), and poverty who finds comfort in cross-dressing and his elaborate fantasy world, is no doubt extraordinary. However, “Crash Landing” reveals that human-interest story aside, Hogancamp makes art of surpassing sophistication and deep feeling. He has described himself as “a one-sixth film director formerly known as an artist” (“one-sixth” is a reference to his miniature scale), and indeed, his photographed scenes have a larger-than-life, cinematic sweep that packs a powerful emotional punch.
The most recent of the dozens of photographs on display were taken with a digital camera (the earlier ones were shot with a Pentax, aided by a faulty light meter). They capture the ambiance of World War II Belgium and a fantasy hero story of the first order: the attempts by a U.S. Army captain (Hogancamp’s alter ego) who parachuted into a Nazi-decimated town after his plane crashed to wreak revenge on the enemy and protect the village, while in the meantime being made love to by the surviving populace of beautiful, sexy women, key of which are Anna, the blond, pigtailed character who becomes the captain’s wife (their wedding picture, which shows some dead, bloodied SS men hung up behind the happy couple, is included in the show) and Deja, a blue-haired, seductive witch. Often, it is the women who take charge, rescuing or resuscitating the injured captain in weapon-toting action scenes or intimate moments of charged eroticism. Violence, nurturing and romantic jealousy are among the common themes.
Slideshow image: Mark Hogancamp. (Photo by Dan Barton.)