Creative compost

Brian Chippendale’s masterful Human Mold
By GREG COOK  |  May 20, 2008
MAGICAL AND GOOFY: Chippendale’s The Well Balanced Meal.

"Building a world: Chippendale on ‘trying to make intense moments’," by Greg Cook
A blue papier-mâché cathead-lady in a yellow suit occupies the window of Stairwell Gallery (504 Broadway, Providence, through June 6 ) for Brian Chippendale’s new show “Human Mold.” She stands between a pair of little pyramids, and before a gumball-headed papier-mâché guy seated atop a giant papier-mâché mushroom. The cat-lady’s arms are outstretched as if offering a hug of welcome to the Providence artist’s scrappy DIY, rainbow bright, patched-together, cute brut, nostalgic storybook fantasy land.

A few years back, Chippendale, a co-founder of Fort Thunder and half of the noise rock duo Lightning Bolt, was making surreal art allegories of Providence’s gentrification and our post-9/11 world — sinister developers, burning homes, wild soldiers, a derelict Humvee, people cascading out of a cracked and flaming jetliner. His collages here are less political, but still seductively strange. And he’s mastered his technique. It’s a great show.

Weird stuff is going in these pictures. An idiot sits in an armchair lofted into the air by balloons. A pumpkinhead-person with a sledgehammer looms over another pumpkinhead-person who has collapsed on the ground with junk (a can, an M&M, a Aleve pill) spilling out the top of its head. A couple does it doggie style while a head watches from behind a green bush. Chippendale’s version of Cap’n Crunch sits on a grounded boat filled with squash; the vessel is tethered to a cloud. It all feels like a punk psychedelic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland dream or maybe Mad Max in Candy Land.

My favorite collage is The Well Balanced Meal, which shows a smiling girl seated atop a candy mushroom offering a jar of crunchy peanut butter to a cat-person, who shyly offers a banana in return. There’s a magical, goofy generosity in these gestures.

The basic building block of Chippendale’s collages is a busy homemade camouflage pattern, often screenprinted in pink, blue, yellow, or green, that becomes sky and ground. It also decorates houses and teepees and costumes his figural sculptures and giant mushroom. The camouflage represents his restless, obsessive mark-making, and need to fill space.

But it also reflects our synthetic world — camouflage is an abstracted cartoon of nature that can blend in seamlessly with the real thing.

OPEN WINDOW This creature welcomes you
to the artist’s scrappy DIY fantasy land.
The gallery’s back room sort of replicates his studio, offering a window into his process. His collages are built from his own cut-up screenprints, which mix some borrowed pictures with lots of his own drawings. Fifteen screenprints reveal his storehouse of spare parts: a jetliner, boat, mushrooms, house, teepee. He mixes and matches arms, legs, and torsos as if playing with paper dolls.

Scraps of paper cover part of the gallery floor, echoing the cut-up prints that litter Chippendale’s studio floor and from which he scavenges images. His subjects seem to sprout from a compost of Dungeons and Dragons, superhero and magna comics, He-Man and other toys from his childhood, science fiction, video games, kids’ doodles, Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cartoons, Henry Darger, and news that he hears on public radio. Also in there are odd reflections of Chippendale’s DIY lifestyle of recycling, low-spending, bicycle power, rooftop gardening, and patched-up clothes.

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