New York

Justen Ladda

Fashion Moda

Comic-book characters are a staple of American childhood. Boldly drawn, garishly colored heroes and villains people the imaginations of American children, crossing all barriers of class and race. Monster comics represent the darker, subconscious side of the mythology; the monster is usually a hero, goodness personified at heart but frightful to look upon. Justen Ladda’s rendering of the Marvel comic-book character “The Thing,” presented in conjunction with Fashion Moda in the South Bronx, is a phantasmagoric site piece that encompasses these archetypal childhood mythologies as well as the political and esthetic mythologies of poverty and Pop art. It is located in an abandoned school a few blocks from Fashion Moda’s storefront. An unusually powerful example of site-specific work, it would, in another, more properly art-world environment, become an illusionistic gimmick.

The school itself was apparently closed in the early ’70s; unprotected, it has been severely vandalized. What remains is the wreckage of an ongoing war. The building is a shell, showing traces of fire; whole staircases have been ripped out, all the windows broken, floorboards torn up; water floods much of the basement, giving the place a sickly sweet smell.

Visitors must bring lanterns to view Ladda’s “spacepainting.” Descending the remnants of a staircase to the basement, you reach the side entrance to the school auditorium. As the eye grows accustomed to the light, The Thing comes into focus, its lumpy orange body seeming to lunge out at you from the far wall of the auditorium, casting a pitch-black shadow. For a moment The Thing appears to be running across the seat tops toward you. The illusion breaks down as you enter the auditorium and see that the image of “The Thing” extends from the wall onto the chairs, accounting for its apparent three-dimensionality. But then the “genius of the place” takes over. All of the seats are painted white, and they seem to emanate light, their rounded regularity creating a virtual graveyard.

Working in a populist mode with issues of Pop art, Ladda gives an unusual twist to the packaging and consumption of art and culture implicit in Andy Warhol’s soup cans and in the slick, instantaneous iconic status of Roy Lichtenstein’s comics. In the announcement for the piece Ladda quotes Carl Jung; but his treatment of pop-culture imagery, and his placement of it in this school, also invite a political reading of “what it means for the gates of the underworld to be opened” and for “things whose enormity nobody could have imagined” to “[turn] our world upside down.” Here the underworld is not only that of archetypal images and childhood fantasies of power; it is the underworld of the political and social system that makes graveyards of schools, relegating an entire segment of the population to the position of a subconscious that must be repressed.

Ladda’s accompanying installation on the auditorium stage poses the specter of reaction and destruction. A pyramid of books about five feet high stands center stage. Behind the books, a white circle is painted on a black backdrop; within it, delicate yellow flames outline the edges of the pyramid. As you face the stage, it seems as if the books (which have been painted white) are spotlit, and in the dusky light the flames of this “bonfire” appear to grow. A ghost assembly witnesses the book-burning. Is The Thing charging angrily out from the auditorium wall in revenge?

Jamey Gambrell