A mini hurricane must have swept through the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, with the result being Phillip Estlund’s exhibition “Subprime/Subtropics.”
Using raw materials found from hurricane disaster sites, Estlund has dotted the spartan main gallery with the detritus of Mother Nature’s wrath, or at least dollhouse-sized models of it. In “Retreat,” the scale model of a battered shack stands, barely, on a mound of green muck, the entire landscape situated in an open wooden display case, like a diorama. Most of the artist’s other site-specific wood sculptures jut out from the gallery’s walls: pieces of ruined homes and ruined lives mashed together with glue, resin and foam.
The result is menacingly suggestive; piercing shards of wood hang from the assemblages like stalactites. Estlund’s sculptures are, in a way, both ugly and beautiful, surreal in their aesthetics but very real in their materials. They are the unpleasant remnants of storm damage, immortalized in an art gallery long after their life-sized counterparts have been swept away and recycled.
But what I found most surprising in a show that takes disasters as its thematic launching point is how much I laughed. “Subprime/Subtropics” is a playful exhibition. (Even the title is imbued with a sardonic double meaning, with “subprime” suggesting homes under water fiscally as well as physically.)
Three of Estlund’s pieces are large-scale paintings of palm trees and sandy beaches, the kind of images that appear on postcards in Miami Beach gift shops. Only here, the canvases are cut off at the bottom, protruding from the floor at canted angles as if they were tossed there and nobody cleaned them up yet. Moreover, the picturesque landscapes are streaked with dirty water, their placid evocations tainted by nasty elements.
The Art and Culture’s Center’s smaller gallery is filled with more Estlund works, including his funniest and most imaginative pieces. In these two-dimensional collages, Estlund begins with ordinary found photographs – of satellite maps (pre-Google), faded landscapes, musty domestic interiors and banal industrial complexes – which are made infinitely more exciting by the artist’s surgeries, his removal or addition of hilarious elements. In “Adventures in Interior Design,” giant mushrooms invade a gaudy bedroom. In “Home Invasion Series 1,” orange tentacles emerge from a rustic fireplace. In “The Final Blow,” images of wrestlers Steve Austin and The Rock in the WWE ring are replaced by flowers in the shape of people. This is juxtaposed with the adjacent “Seismos,” which transposes two wrestlers duking it out onto a field of flowers. The cognitive dissonance these images create is priceless.
Despite the focus on storm-damaged architecture, Estlund is less a documentarian of disaster than an inventive science-fiction writer who happens to write with visuals. And, like the best sci-fi works, you can take from them all the social commentary you see fit.