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Twisted Critters

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I'm sitting at a cafe, writing this, and I overhear two guys talking. A 30ish guy at the next table is offering a teenage guy some fatherly advice on how to broaden his horizons. When he suggests listening to Tom Waits songs, the teen is OK with that, but when he recommends Marilyn Manson, the kid balks. "Oh no, I couldn't -- when I was little my father used to play Marilyn Manson first thing every morning, so now I associate him with my childhood, and, you know... my parents." Ouch!

Obviously, childhood means different things to different people. Americans have a myth about childhood: it's supposed to be great. Many Americans, Midwesterners in particular, cling to the myth and only slowly, if ever, does the truth emerge, that no matter who you are, childhood is really weird. Mark Hosford is from Kansas City and lives in Tennessee, but his smallish pencil drawings, like scenes from twisted children's stories, are some of the creepiest things I've ever seen. They are also exquisitely well drawn, which makes them even weirder.

There is an innocence about the whimsical faces of children, but the effect is disorienting when they appear amid things resembling mutant slugs or serpents, mythic beings or animated trees, even misshapen bodily organs that may hint at female or male pudenda. Not content to leave weird enough alone, Hosford stylistically mimics vintage children's books, lending a sweetly nostalgic aura to that which could never be sweetly nostalgic even if you were breast-fed to the strains of Marilyn Manson.

Brown Recluse, a view of a kid in a bell jar surrounded by demonic beings, rude body parts and lots of spiders, is allegedly inspired by the time poisonous little arachnids invaded Hosford's home. The kid looks dazed as a humanoid insect performs an arcane ritual while spiders and snails circle the glass enclosure. In The Search for T#1, a schoolgirl strokes a mutant, clown-faced groundhog as it blows steam at a demon sitting on what resembles a gigantic, smoke-belching heart while clutching another vascular organ of some sort, and it's one of those timeless moments. Like most of Hosford's stuff, it's impossible to adequately describe. Maybe you just have to be there -- if you dare.

Matthew Kirscht's mostly small, and much looser, paintings seem so colorfully cheerful at first, they almost flaunt the sorts of softly buoyant colors you might associate with Junior's bedroom. Images of young kids and cartoonish, animal-like figures extend the sense of a wistful child-world fantasy, as soporific as Mr. Rogers, at least until you look more closely. Only then does the truth sink in, that this stuff is warped, as we see in A Secret Meeting in Which Tomorrow's Treacheries Are Discussed.

Here an ambulatory cupcake and a slinky skeleton seem to dance around a rabbitman standing in a big kettle as flames leap all around it. Rabbitman grins like a leering idiot and it's very goofy, making no sense but visual sense of an especially twisted sort. In Desire, temptation is everywhere but satisfaction is elusive, as a bear reaches his paws up toward the branches of a tree festooned with lollipops wearing happy faces. On the green grass below, ice cream cones sprout like mushrooms after a rain, yet the objects of the bear's desires always appear just beyond its grasp. The Road to Cakeland is emblematic. Here a glass of some bright, orange Kool Aid-like stuff, replete with arms and legs, pats the head of an equally ambulatory apple. Against the bland horizon, under a happy-face sun, a sign points the way to Cakeland and Gumland, and the whole thing is so saccharine that you just know this must be the same kind of Kool-Aid favored by the Rev. Jim Jones and his famous mass suicide cult years ago. Any question in that vein is answered by the cute little painting of a bear conked out under a tree festooned with a beehive. The title? Allergic to Bees. A view of a crying baby surrounded by swarming bees is called You Are Not Safe. No kidding! Kirscht's sketchily painted little canvases explore the bitter, metallic aftertaste that occasionally accompanies childhood's famously confectionery pleasures.

Mark Hosford's graphite drawing, Brown Recluse, was inspired by the time poisonous spiders invaded - his home.
  • Mark Hosford's graphite drawing, Brown Recluse, was inspired by the time poisonous spiders invaded his home.

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