Wanting What You Hate
I have one of those plastic trolls, popular in the ’70s, with the shock of neon hair, potbelly, and beady eyes—only mine’s been split from crown to crotch, and is missing one eye and all its hair. I found the grinning little monster in an alley—some kid’s lost toy.
It’s just the kind of thing that Mariano Chavez loathes. “I’ve always hated trolls,” he says. But Chavez, who received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute, has populated his studio with scores of the detestable creatures. They crop up in paintings such as “Troll Lover,” in which three women with pendulous breasts sport toothy trollish smiles.
And the monsters are all over Chavez’s self-published books. On the cover of Explanations, they’re superimposed on an absurdly chesty woman lifted from the pages of a porn mag. These grinning troll heads—crowned by gaudy flora—often deprive bodies of their human heads, thereby “possessing” or “kidnapping” their buxom hosts, as Chavez describes it.
Chavez, too, is a man possessed by these phantasmal trolls. You wouldn’t know it at first. He’s animated, affable, funny. But when he talks about his work and his life, it’s clear that he, like the menaced women he paints, is vexed by monsters. They come at him from everywhere—memories, daydreams, popular culture—inserting themselves into a narrative that has its roots in childhood.
As a boy living with his mom, the minister of a non-denominational church in the little town of Big Wells, Texas, Chavez fantasized about a mythical land called “California.” “I knew this cute girl who was born in California. And I got this idea that all the hot women came from there. I mean, I was maybe twelve years old, and David Lee Roth was covering ‘California Girls,’ and so I had this weird fantasy about the place.”
California remains the scene of Chavez’s paintings. It’s a fantasyland, filled with supernal sexuality—but also with trolls. “It’s a decadent land, almost an island,” Chavez says of the fantastic California. “It makes me want the stuff I hate.”
Wanting stuff he hates is at the root of much of Chavez’s work. The creation of his books, for example, stems from a desire for the detestable, a fascination with the fearful, and a delight in the dirty. He talks about the evolution of TROLL/Dirty Flowers, a collection of stark, unsettling ink drawings that are at once comical and horrific. This book’s pages feature bloodletting logs protruding from inverted ponds, freakish gorillas in a primordial hunting scene, disembodied shark maws hovering like parodies of the Cheshire Cat’s grin, and ghoulish troll heads sprouting flowers from gaping pores. Chavez revisits these themes through a constantly evolving narrative of obsession.
Chavez’s 2001 book Twinners (now in the SAIC’s Joan Flasch Artists Book Collection), tells the tale of a pair of tragedy-prone pals who can’t stop skinning their knees and slicing their hands on the sharp arcs of rainbows. The garish pigments of the prints inside the book contrast with the oatmeal-colored cover, made of a textured rubber resembling overexposed guts. An umbilical cord connects the cover to a vibrating mechanism, making for a visceral reading experience.
Chavez opens TROLL/Dirty Flowers with a story written in increments, each numbered section of the text corresponding to a page of drawing. Vacillating between the corny/romantic and the dirty/horrific, the lines introduce the reader to such uncanny “characters” as the Three Blood Logs, the EYE, the TROLL, and the DIRTY. Unconventional syntax enhances the confusion of sexual excitement, anxiety, and loathing: “[28 & 29]…I with capable limbs could never possess the charms of TROLL. I stared as her large breasts ascended to large globes as TROLL left her body. What a sight to behold! The liquids were dark and hard to identify as if I were a baby in a tub for the first time…  It grew despite the hate you have for it.”
This combination of hatred and love, fear and fascination, is again at work in Explanations. Chavez describes this book as a survey of “contemporary raunch and ritual,” where abstract spirals of iridescent colors juxtapose with the sepia tones of an appropriated photo capturing a Peruvian religious rite. Elsewhere the promiscuous troll heads appear. They possess frolicking cavemen chasing after glowing blue orbs in a scene of primordial play; they obscure the faces of buxom adult idols; they drip Day-Glo gore from their own severed necks as they hover against a matte black background.
Hated and feared, but ultimately captivating, these infernal troll heads are also Chavez’s talismans, spectral icons infused with a magic that possesses the artist who conjures it.
Talismans: Gifts of a Troll Lover
Chavez also conjures his caboodle of troll heads in large acrylic and oil paintings, which he thinks of as “cinematic illustrations” or “movie posters of the characters.” Here the ribald troll faces mask zaftig adult movie stars Lolo Ferrari and Wendy Whoppers. And the stars’ nipples, like their faces, are nowhere to be found. Replaced by the glaring plumage of opulent red flowers, the nipples are the focus of the viewer’s gaze but also obscured objects of desire. The result is an alluring and flummoxing series of canvases as compelling and repellent as Chavez wants them to be.
In “Lolo Ferrari Possessed,” the massive globes of a porn star’s inflated bosom are aggressively incongruous, impossible to ignore. But the nipples remain under conspicuous cover of two encysted blooms whose roots seem almost to surface in the painterly strokes that render the breasts’ purple veins.
“There’s not really any nudity in these paintings,” Chavez comments. “But although the flowers censor, they also bring out the shame. They’re trying to hide the naughty, but they also make it dirtier.” In a single gesture, the ostentatious blossoms covering the nipples also call attention to them, hiding and heightening the vulgarity.
Egregiously sexual and yet never nude—it’s this paradox of illusion and disillusionment that Chavez is so fond of: What remains hidden is exaggerated in the hiding, and what’s lost returns in a monstrous form. “These are sexy women,” Chavez says, “but it’s sexiness taken so far that it’s scary. It’s like horror, this sexiness, this fascination. It’s alluring but kind of repulsive.”
In “Gift of the Troll Lover,” a ghoulish green haze hides the features of a once lovely lady, leaving her looking queasily amphibious. “Some people think it’s a mask,” Chavez said of the hand-painted pall over the silkscreened figure. Later, he mentions masks again. “You know, when you’re a kid, a stupid rubber mask or a doll can be pure horror. That’s magic, and childhood. You connect with plastic objects, and they’re the worst horror.”
“There’s always something evil about toys,” Chavez continues. “How do kids learn to be afraid of their dolls?” Surrounded by recursive troll heads—talismans of his own creation—Chavez tells a story that seems part of a repertoire of grief and humor, loss and seeking. When he was a kid, he says, he had a favorite toy, a monster doll that was a gift from his mother. “But eventually my mom decided it was bad,” Chavez explains. “She thought it was evil, so she burned it.”
He keeps his eye out for it everywhere now, still searching for that loathed and beloved monster. “I want to find that toy,” he laughs. “I’m always trying to get my stupid toy back.”
Mariano Chavez: Talismaniac
Linda Warren Gallery
1052 W Fulton Market
May 16 – June 20, 2008; opening reception May 16, 6 – 9pm