Sensory Overlords 

LoBot Gallery's latest show features art that might maim you.

I'm inside a freshly painted catacomb, crawling on my hands and knees past jagged metal screws, wooden splinters, and hyperflammable fake rocks, when it hits me: This is probably why tactile art has never really taken off.

The Minimalists, the Realists, the Abstract Expressionists, they've all had their time and place and stars, but the Interactionists? "Not that I know of," says Caleb Rogers, who is half responsible for bringing a big, bold, and possibly dangerous collection of tactile art to West Oakland this week. Rogers and LoBot Gallery cocurator Adam Hatch rounded up more than a dozen Bay Area artists this week for Touch Me, Feel Me, something approximating sensory overload. Think Chuck E. Cheese's for the MDMA generation.

"We just wanted to get more people into art and one of the ways to do it is to make it more of an emotional investment," Hatch said. "Make people reach out and explore it."

Fun is one word. Risky and filthy might be others. More than 1,700 dirty, abandoned toy animals scavenged from various East Bay sites make up Hatch's seven-foot-tall piece in the exhibit, a meta-teddy bear named Pre-Loved.

Here are the beady-eyed teddies, the sad bunnies, and the frumpy monkeys -- formative objectives of love and ownership -- all mashed up and sewn together into a cartoon demigod. The urge to reconnect with the soft fur is immediately checked by the apprehension to touching these tattered, browned, polluted items.

"They're so easy to get," Hatch said. "Nobody wants them. Once they were cherished, then they were just thrown away and forgotten. Like your first girlfriend."

"It's so huggable," Rogers added, "plus you might get chicken pox."

A poignant comment on disposable consumer culture, indeed. But what to make of Eric Groff's Church and St. Peter's Bones? He modified the LoBot Gallery's six-foot-tall stage and under-stage area to construct a shantytown church with found materials. Descend the rope at the top of the steeple and you enter Groff's catacombs, modeled after the reliquary of St. Peter's bones in Rome.

Known for his towering, interactive cityscape at the Richmond Arts Center's Curate This exhibit, Groff uses the third-world shantytown aesthetic to challenge the mores of classical, Pythagorean architecture. It also invokes the living conditions of much of the world's destitute population. Without building codes or formal construction training for the builder, and featuring dangerous building materials like the same insulation that burned up the Great White concert in Rhode Island at which 95 people died, Groff's shanty church is perilously authentic. "We were thinking about making people sign a release of liability to go in," he said.

Art that might maim you? Awesome.

Looking around the LoBot Gallery with its cardboard cathedral, Pre-Loved depressed in the corner, and touchable art on the walls, you have to ask: Is this art? Does it have a future? Or is it just another excuse for a rocking party with amazing props?

Show contributor Jamie Nelson says get off your High Art horse. "I really don't see it as precious. Maybe the piece isn't complete until five hundred people have touched it and destroyed it. It's breaking the barriers of high art. It's art for everybody, and I'm down with that."


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