For many artists Detroit could be like the Land of Oz, the Russell Industrial Center its Emerald City, and storied artist Mark Arminski the wizard. Change out the yellow brick road for yellow metal doors and your route to Arminski's studio will yield unseen adventures, run-ins with extraordinary characters and a very bizarre bazaar. When you get there, you'll see that Arminski's not alone. No, over in a corner of his studio there's a brush-wielding rock 'n' roll pixie of sorts, working. She wears a slate gray-and-black outfit and her blunt-cut magenta mop suggests hers is a character much larger than her petite frame. And you could call her adorable.
Surrounded by toys, new and old, domestic and imported, linear and lenticular, she's painting final touches on a cake that rests so quaintly atop Marie Antoinette's coif. Satisfied with the raspberries and frosting, she goes to the stereo and cranks up something heavy and loud, like Muse or Queens of the Stone Age. Meet 29-year-old Audrey Pongracz, a Russell Industrial beauty who's equal parts Dorothy, Glenda and Ozma.
Pongracz's oil-on-canvas work suggests a surreal world of women and animals living in sublime forests and black-hole voids. Her subject's faces show emotions, challenging meshes of innocence and fear. And there's something cockeyed about her "human" characters — hair that looks human can take on any shape, skin that's too perfect, as are the mouths and noses, while the size of the eyes and shape of the head take on weird, alien qualities. The faces are rarely happy, and if there's a smile to be found, there's blood on the canvas — either red or rainbow — seeping out from somewhere.
Her paintings are also clean and dreamy, vulnerable even, and can twist the mind and eye. You'll see melancholic fairytale caricatures in an atmosphere of lurking danger; Cinderella, Rupunzel and Little Red Riding Hood make appearances. But don't let such frivolity fool you, the subtext — Bambi and the Easter Bunny's busts freshly mounted, still smiling and bloody — gets thick.
Sitting on a couch that could've been Marcia Brady's, Pongracz talks of Japanese art and culture, Wes Anderson's framing and Leonard Cohen's perfect growl, but nothing makes her eyebrow rise more than artist Mark Ryden. Pongracz's subverted play between menace and cartoonish gloss is similar to Ryden's (think a children's book on a bad acid trip), yet never feels derivative.
"He's the godfather of lowbrow art," she says of Ryden. "His talent and technique are amazing, but even more amazing is that, at least for me, every piece he puts out seems to be a little bit better than the last."
As the conversation turns to the Russell Industrial Center, Pongracz glows. "People come here to work," she says of its tenants. "Out of a mutual respect for wanting to be productive, we don't bother each other too much, but over time you get to know each other and see that there are great people doing all sorts of amazing things. And in the summer you can go to the Motor City Movie House drive-in [a funky, D.I.Y. projection on the south wall of the Russell Bazaar], so what else do you need?"
Pongracz and the older Arminski are artists from different generations with exceptionally distinct styles — she's a post-punk surrealist and he's a classic rock poster pimp — but a certain bond of being timelessly cool and imaginatively open has given them both staying power. And while Pongracz might display a maternal temperament, there's something about her that's not unlike a curious little kid who might stroll along with a gang of unusual imaginary friends.
Metro Times: What's something that someone might think is weird about you?
Audrey Pongracz: I have a whole separate world in my dreams. I have neighborhoods, houses and people that reoccur often in my dreams. It's like having a double life, where the situations encountered often find their way into my paintings.
MT: The double life idea goes back to Jung's duality of man thing. ...
Pongracz: You have this world where your work comes from, which can be very childlike and involves only you, then you have the other world with the bills, important decisions and relationships. It's kind of like a child trying to be an adult.
MT: If you are bouncing between worlds, how do you break out of it?
Pongracz: Getting insomnia and then watching some great films while my brain is deprived from sleep.
MT:Was there a book, movie, cartoon or something that stuck with you from an early age?
Pongracz:Anything by Rankin and Bass. There was a tiny bit a strangeness mixed in with the visual delight of their movies. Watching their specials was one of my most favorite things about the holidays, and The Last Unicorn is still one of my favorites.
MT: Do you listen to music when you're working on a piece? If so, how loud and what are three records you love?
Pongracz: I love this question! Music is definitely necessary for me while working and it has to be very loud, almost to the point of ridiculousness. Right now my top three are In Rainbows by Radiohead, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Muse's Black Holes and Revelations.
MT: There's a Cursive song called "Art is Hard." They're right, yes?
Pongracz: Van Gogh said, "I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process." I can totally relate.
MT: Artistically speaking, what's your guilty pleasure?
Pongracz: Watching Bob Ross on public television.
MT: Bob Ross! Were you destined to be an artist?
Pongracz: Art has always been part of my life — it all just feels normal. When I was a child, I thought everyone was like me, that they all had the same thoughts that I did. It wasn't until people started treating me differently that I began to feel differently about myself.
MT: But now you're part of the Detroit art scene. Would you say it's inclusive?
Pongracz: I love our art community; everyone is connected in one way or another. There is a lot of support, and we see each other at shows pretty often. I'd say it's a tight-knit group — there's no room for elitism.
MT: Do you have a mantra?
Pongracz: Can't say that I do.
See more at audreypongracz.com.
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