Before there was Santa Claus and St. Nicholas, the darkest time of the year was associated in pagan Europe with the wild man of the woods, variously known as the Krampus, Black Peter or Wandago. Smelly, covered in matted hair, and bearing horns, the Krampus survived the advent of Christianity to become one of St. Nick’s helpers — rather than deliver lumps of punitive coal, in many traditions he would collect bad kids in his basket and drag them to hell.
We in antiseptic America know nothing of the Krampus — well, at least until he got his modest revival via social networking — but the terrifying folk figure has proved to be an inspiring subject for artists. KMOCA’s December show, “Cold Comfort: Monstrous Icons of Winter,” is a stand-out exhibition. The more than 30 participating artists were all on an imaginative roll, producing art that is unfailingly entertaining. The small, two-roomed gallery located in a storefront on Abeel Street is also in the midst of transition, as Deborah Degraffenreid and Michael Asbill pass the curatorial torch to Eric Johnson, who recently relocated to Kingston from Manhattan. Several of the artists, based in New York City, have noteworthy reputations. “Monstrous Icons of Winter” is proof that the new guard is up to the task of continuing the gallery’s reputation for cutting-edge work with a whimsical edge.
Creepiness has its own poetic resonance, and the nightmarish, subversive psychological logic of Grimm’s Fairy Tales sets the tone here. (Indeed, given how kids’ literature has been sanitized and the dark scary stuff deemed inappropriate — an editorializing I don’t necessarily disagree with, remembering the time I started to read Hansel and Gretel to my 4-year-old son only to discover he was so terrified he insist I close the book — this adult-rated content connects us to our inner child in the most uncomfortable way.) Chad Ferber’s wooden box affixed to the wall, painted with a religious icon, is accompanied by the suggestion, printed out in Gothic typeface and taped to the wall, “Open Me.” One discovers the front is a door that opens, revealing a painting of a devil with stuck-out tongue and a tiny plastic cup filled with bourbon. The prohibition of the religious imagery and the blatant suggesting of devilry may transport some of us back to the guilty feelings of childhood, although no one seemed to have a problem with that, considering the cup was empty.
Susan Vajaranant’s gingerbread house, covered in swirls of white frosting, was cut away in parts to reveal a glass terrarium housing millipedes, sow bugs, and other assorted creepy crawlies. It’s entitled “Sweetness and Blight,” and Vajaranant, who makes a living as a food scientist, said she ordered the bugs on-line and came up with the piece as a metaphor for her struggle with cancer. Undine Brod’s freestanding seven-foot-tall stuffed animal, which looked like a cross between a giraffe and a teddy bear, represents a kind of cannibalization: while at an artists’ residency in Detroit she scoured the city’s abundant thrift stores for stuffed animals, which she skinned and pieced together over an armature of wood and chicken wire to make the piece. Galen Green’s Lady Krampus Finger Puppet, a knitted doll with exposed breasts, horns, thrust-out tongue and jumping-jack pose, submitted the wild man in the woods to a gender change without any loss of horrific force.
Christopher Buzelli, an illustrator for The New York Times who was approached cold by the KMOCA curators and agreed to submit a piece, envisioned the Krampus as a fiery, grinning blue monkey-faced devil crouched in a red toy wagon pulled by tiny, fearful children who are getting run over in the process; adding to the terror, it’s pitch-black night and the ground is littered with skulls. It’s a good modernization of the long-lost genre of krampuskarten, Victorian-era postcards depicting Krampus doing his thing. Giselle Potter in her small, disarming painting “Bearman” depicts a befuddled-looking person wearing a brown bear suit in a Rocky Mountain landscape, suggesting not just disconnections with the self but also with nature. Kingston-based painter Gabe Brown collaborated with Neal Hollinger in two paintings, titled “Hello” and “Scream,” which tap into film noir: they depict a Yeti-like Krampus talking on the phone and stalking a screaming female face, as if he were a Robert Mitchum character guilty of date rape in a B-movie. The illustrative style is combined interestingly with the subtlety of Brown’s luminous abstracted patterns.
Several of the pieces’ tiny scale required the viewer to get up close. That’s not an easy feat during the crowded opening but, particularly in the case of Brooklyn-based artist Anne Arden McDonald, well worth the effort. McDonald makes hanging watch sculptures, in which she creates exquisite, Joseph Cornell-like miniscule worlds within empty watch cases using found materials such as mustard, lettuce and apple seeds, rodent bones and discarded watch parts. A couple of the pieces re-created arctic landscapes, including a tiny snow globe with an iceberg and falling “snow,” when the watch case is shaken. “Self-Portrait” probably came the closest to the Krampus theme: the case was filled with brown hair, which half-hid a staring glass eye. McDonald also displayed a small case of her silver and gold jewelry, tiny reliefs consisting of castings of seeds, lace soaked in wax, teeth and other objects. One ring consisted of the metal twisted to create a void-like hole — subverting the notion of jewelry as adornment while poking fun at the abyss, as it were something you could wear on your finger.
I could go on, given that virtually every piece in this show is worthy of mention. Don’t miss this show, which is a refreshing tonic to the commercialization and distorted sentimentality of the season.
What does the fox say?
The Storefront Gallery also has a holiday tie-in, though in this case to the light-filled tradition of Sinterklaas, which for the last two years has brought holiday cheer to Kingston on the last Saturday of November. Every year Sinterklaas honors a particular animal, which this year is the fox, so gallery owner Nancy Donskoj decided to make the sly critter the theme of her December group show. Fifteen artists contributed to “The Honored Animal: The Fox,” and collectively the work expresses a wonderful, magic realist approach.