Retrospectif: Five Hundred Sixty Two

From Jan. 5 through Jan. 26, the art gallery moxie DaDA @ the firehouse exhibited work from Pittsburgh-area artist Toby Atticus Fraley and Nashville artist Mr. Hooper. The show, Retrospectif: Five Hundred Sixty Two, featured vintage and retro style paintings from both artists, as well as several mixed media robots and clockworks by Fraley.

“We featured both artists for a couple of reasons,” said Grant Bobitski, the exhibit’s curator.“We met Toby and Mr. Hooper at the Arts Festival two years ago, and we really liked their work, and they both work really well together with their retro riffs. They are younger, which is something we look for.

“Lastly, January is a month where we try to pair an artist from Pittsburgh with one from outside of the city. It’s a kind of annual event we try to put together.”

Fraley is recognized for his robots, two of which reside in separate, private collections of Grammy Award-winning musicians. The robots are built from vintage items, such as vacuum cleaners and picnic coolers, bought from places like yard sales and eBay auctions. Each robot is turned into a lamp or a room accent light, with a round-roofed, cylindrical light bulb for the head.

Featured robots at the exhibit included “Robot 13,” a robot soldier with an amputated leg, holding itself up with a single crutch, waving a white flag whose pole is made from a foot-long ruler. The robot soldier’s stand has the image of George Bush with airplane bombers overhead and alternating red and white stripes above that image. The low-wattage light on its head, the robot’s body, and the fiber optic cables sticking out of its severed leg all light up.

“I’ve always been a big fan of the early space race era,” Fraley said. “During that time a lot of artwork and objects came out with that certain look that has a lot of ‘spacey’ feel to it. It just all seems better designed, basically.”

“Spacey” is the best word to describe Fraley’s sculpture, “ATR.” Made from a vintage power inverter, coffee percolator, electrical parts, a truck light, and other miscellaneous items, the sculpture looked like a boxy, robotic puppy with wheels for legs. It resembled the type of robotic dogs you’d see on The Jetsons.

DaDA’s guest book included a comment from a visitor who wrote down his impression of the exhibit; referencing Lost in Space, it read, “Danger, Will Robinson!”

Hooper’s paintings included an array of attitude-filled animals, robots, and portraits of famous cultural icons as well as ordinary people. His work is reminiscent of work by Robert Crumb, who illustrated comics including Keep on Truckin’ and American Splendor. It created a gritty complement to Fraley’s work.

“I met him a couple of years ago in an art festival, and I first saw his work there,“ Fraley said of Hooper. “I liked his work then, and so when I heard I’d be in a show with him, I was really glad. I don’t know what it is about the look of his work, but I like it. I was thrilled to be in a show with him, actually.”

Hooper’s smaller paintings included a sassy penguin exclaiming “Love me,” a butch Popeye-esque woman with an arm tattoo “Sweetie,” and a robot squirting a water gun. The gun left the words “Do You Believe In Love” in its wake. The text within his paintings is written in a messy, comic book style you’d see in Fritz the Cat. However, not all of Hooper’s paintings are in that exaggerated style. One work was of a blue bird with a circular backdrop. It resembled the envelope seals that are given as a gift, via postal mail, for contributing to charities or fundraisers.

“Hooper’s work is very accessible because, for lack of a better word, it’s popular,” said Matthew Indovina, moxie DaDA’s organizational manager. “Many people can relate to the images.”

He commented that Hooper has a large following, and many of the visitors fall into the 20- to 30-year-old age group. “People that grew up on comic books and action figures really connect to his art,” he said.

Also exhibited by Hooper was a portrait of American country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash and wrestler Wild Bull Curry, along with a painting of an abstract, roboticized Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s head was of portrait quality, connected to a square vacuum cleaner body. His neck was the Slinky-like tubing of a vacuum. He had black crow wings and was plucking a flower with his crow’s feet, with rays of lights folding out behind him.

The combination of these two artists’ work created an easy, fun experience. Fraley’s clockworks could make viewers laugh, while his robots were reminiscent of old TV shows. Hooper’s work brought back old cultural icons and retro art, a sort of visual homage to old messages like “Keep on truckin’!”

“In terms of the concept, physical pieces and layout of the show, it was a success,” Bobitski said. “I liked the accompaniment, the way everything complemented each other.”

Opening night saw a large crowd, comprised of many fans who followed Hooper’s work. One group even came from Canada for a business trip and stayed three extra days just to see the show.

“My only regret is that Mr. Hooper wasn’t here for very long,” Indovina said. “We like to spend time with our artists; getting to know them is part of our policy. But I could only meet him in passing this time around. I would’ve liked to buy him a beer.”