New York

Pat Place

Tin Pan Alley

Pat Place is best known for her work as a musician—she played guitar with the original Contortions, New York’s infamous funk noir group, and now leads the Bush Tetras, an artful New York dance band—but she has been making paintings, sculptures, and photographs for as long as she has been making music. Place recently had her first solo exhibition, a group of large color photographs, at this bar in the Times Square area. It was an appropriate setting for the work, an artists’ and musicians’ hangout where every once in a while some of the local color drifts in and a few patrons might have thought that the photos—tableaux of toy monsters, souvenir objects, and other exotic items (there may even be a pink elephant in there somewhere)—were a hallucination.

These bizarre scenes are built up from Place’s large collection of pop monsters and miniature pop objects. The creatures include troll and Star Wars dolls, plastic dinosaurs and lizards, and squeaking toys. They inhabit strangely lit places, usually littered with objects that make jokes of scale and proportion. In one picture the smallest object is a grand piano, a Coke bottle is slightly larger, and a tiny tiny copy of Newsweek has a cover story on “The Scars of Vietnam”; the largest objects are a plastic double cheeseburger, a box of Pop Tarts, and a box of Sugar Smacks. There’s also a $100 bill lying around. One tries to identify one of the objects as real to find some scalar reference, but it’s impossible.

Most of these pictures are somewhat humorous but some are remarkably beautiful, almost in spite of the objects composing them. One picture is dominated by several tulips, each blossom a stunning mixture of red and yellow. Somehow Place found a dog’s plastic hot dog in exactly the same shades. Below the flowers are two toy telephone receivers in a striking red, and the background, seemingly, is out-of-focus aquamarine Spandex. This oddball still life is a gorgeous composition of colors, and its humor does not detract from its attraction.

Another very pretty picture, Plastic Technology, 1981, is quite mysterious. It consists of two photos mounted one above the other. In the top panel a translucent pink plastic man in a space suit, packaged in cellophane, floats as if weightless in blue space. A blue light looms out of focus in the background, suggesting a UFO. The bottom panel has a similarly hued background, this one a translucent plastic printed circuit. In the foreground red and clear plastic tubes coil like worms; among them is a scorpion, also of translucent plastic, and a shiny insect monster. The work is a wordless commentary on the associations between computer and insect life, questions of artificial intelligence, and even the semiorganic origins of plastic.

Like the work of Jack Smith, Place’s photos find humor and beauty in trash and vulgarity. Her dense microcosms of toy monstrosity convey a good-natured but critical vision of play. While entertaining us Place also challenges us to consider the differences between cuteness and frightfulness, horror and amusement, innocence and experience. Our psychic boundaries are forever shifting and Place’s photos are maps of those everyday gray areas that elude examination in their apparent frivolity.

Glenn O’Brien