Thursday, November 20, 2014

Guy and Dolls

Robert Boyd

When I was a kid, I made models and built a town out of Legos. I've always been fascinated by models and dioramas. It's often an art that doesn't quite realize it's an art, as in the case of model railroaders or makers of dioramas or dollhouse builders (interestingly, Robert Gober got his start as a dollhouse builder). I've written about artists working in this realm before--Seth's Dominion and Seth Mittag's We're Still Here, for example. A few years ago, a documentary about Mark Hogancamp, Marwencol,came out. I wrote about it briefly in relation to the work of Charles Ledray, another artist who likes making little models.

Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar in 2000 by five men. The savage beating put him into a coma and even after he came out of it, he remained brain damaged.  Afterwards, as a homemade attempt at therapy (he couldn't afford the professional kind), he started to build a highly realistic World War II-era Belgian town in his back yard, populating it with customized action figures representing himself ("Hoagie"), his family and friends, and his attackers. The town is meant as kind of a respite from the war, where people can find healing and rest. This remarkable creation was "discovered" accidentally by an editor for Esopus magazine, who brought the town and Hogancamp's photos of it to a wider audience.

I was visiting New York and saw that an exhibit of new Hogancamp photos was going to be on display at Pioneer Works. The Women of Marwencol focuses on a side of Marwencol that is a key to its existence--the town is inhabited by women and who rescue and nurture men. On one hand, it's a male fantasy--a town full of sexy ladies who keep you happy and do your laundry and genuinely care about you. On the other hand, Hogancamp seems to be identifying the world of men as a dangerous, violent place and the world of women as a nurturing, healing place.

The new works are strange. There is still plenty of World War II imagery (including female Red Army soldiers), but he seems to have added fantastic elements (Deja Thoris, from Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars books, is referred to). It was lovely to see the prints--he sets them in nature that is wildly out of scale, but somehow feels convincing. He's not just a good model-maker, he's a good photographer as well.

Mark Hogancamp, Hogie With His Camera, 2014, Digital C-print, 13 x 18 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Anna, Hogie's wife, brings him a raincoat after a bloody skirmish, 2014, Digital C-print, 27 x 36 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Hogie's mother Edda relaxing on Mother's Day, 2014, Digital C-print, 13 x 18 inches

Hogancamp gives his alter-ego, Hogie, a family. I love that his mother Edda is an elegant, sexy older woman (older compared to most of the other women in Marwencol). The titles of the pieces, like Anna, Hogie's wife, brings him a raincoat after a bloody skirmish, show that there is a narrative happening. Whether that narrative can really be pieced together from the photos, even with the descriptive titles, I don't know. Of course, part of this narrative was explained in the 2010 documentary. But it seems to have continued developing since then. I hope one day there is a big beautiful book of these photos. If so, I recommend ordering them chronologically according to the narrative and using text to fill in the narrative gaps.

Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2008, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

Some of the outfits and hair color show (as in the photo above) that Hogancamp, despite his keen eye for detail, isn't trying to go for any kind of historical accuracy.

Mark Hogancamp, Jacqueline looks at Deja Thoris, 2014, Digital C-print, 27 x 36 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Deja Vu, Belgian Goddess of Youth, whose look turns men to stone, 2014, Digital C-print, 27 x 36 inches

I cannot imagine a better title for any work of art in any medium than Deja Vu, Belgian Goddess of Youth, whose look turns men to stone. 

 Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2014, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2014, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

There are several photos that come off as erotic, but Hogancamp never poses his dolls in overtly sexual poses. In many a kid's bedroom, Ken or G.I. Joe got it on with Barbie, and the whole premise of Marwencol has an erotic undertone. But perhaps it's Hogancamp's seemingly worshipful yet shy attitude towards women (the name, Marwencol, was created by taking part of his name and parts of the names of two women he had unrequited crushes on) won't let him go that far in his photography.

Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2006, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

The images, as in the early one above, can be quite surreal. It's tempting to interpret them in light of Hogancamp's experience, but it's more pleasing to simply bask in the strangeness of the military woman, gripping a pistol in one hand and a teddy bear in the other, cropped so you don't see her face or feet. And the totality of these images is like that. They seem a little off no matter what--a bourgeois artist with an MFA wouldn't make these images which is part of what makes them so compelling. It is enough to know that they are therapeutic; further interpretation is not necessary. Hogancamp created this fantasy to deal with the world that hurt him so badly in the same way that Henry Darger created his fantasies to deal with his troubled world. Hard-nosed types who dismiss fantasy would do well to remember the good it does for damaged people like Mark Hogancamp.

The Women of Marwencol is on view at Pioneer Works until December 12.

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