There’s a moldering, musty, torturously anachronistic quality about Eric Mesko’s folk art museumlike installation at Meadow Brook Art Gallery. It’s also refreshingly humorous and smart.
“No Joy in Mudville” is in fact composed of rank old magazines and newspapers, sculpture and installation structures made of recycled rotting wood, aged American flags (33 of them), funky memorabilia like a World War II gas mask, hundreds of old movie videos, a few decrepit black-and-white TV sets, and vintage record albums, as well as classic Mesko sculpture and drawings. There’s a palpable sense of rot associated with the Americana the exhibit represents. Yet like wandering through a small-town museum, there’s perverse pleasure (and horrible self-recognition) in peering into the past — Mesko’s and our own — and into the mind of the curator who put the show together.
Mesko is that curious curator of this, his own small-town Mudville museum (Mudville is the mythological town from the famed poem “Casey at the Bat”) and the vision he constructs in this complex installation is at once personal, historical, patriotically entrenched, philosophically probing and politically poignant. It’s also a masterful, postmodern self-portrait (filled with contradictions) of himself and of all of the people dreaming the American dream that reveals horrible contradictions and political myopia through private confessions and dialectical discourse.
There are essentially two parts to the installation. They turn on Mesko’s own family’s history and involvement in the American game of baseball, as well as its participation in military life. The centerpiece to the installation is the miniature baseball stadium that first appeared in “Play Ball,” an exhibition of Mesko’s work curated in 1995 by Dennis Nawrocki at Center Galleries in Detroit. Composed of recycled wood lath and a headboard from an antique bed, Mesko’s stadium is, as all baseball parks are, a truly seductive space (even for non-baseball fans). The balanced but strange order of the game, the architecture of the diamond and the graceful security of the ballpark have always been the secret ingredients that keep the mythology of the game intact and serve as the iconic town square that America has come to lack.
In stark contrast, both visually and philosophically, to the ballpark is the enormous model of the menacing Stealth bomber, titled B 2, that sits in another part of the gallery and that symbolically employs oil drums as its pedestal. Also constructed of wood lath, the model of the gruesome weapon of destruction is painted a flat black (as are the originals) and has the archetypal, sneaky aircraft profile.
These two works of art set up the conflicted and contradictory ideological models of the exhibition. Behind the Mudville, U.S.A. stadium is a highly personal installation, Shrine to the Great Game, draped in American flags, that narrates the story of Mesko’s grandfather’s and five uncles’ participation in league baseball in the steel and coal towns of Pennsylvania. A text in the gallery provides a personal statement about how Mesko learned, as a young man, the values of how to play the game of life from his grandfather. Photographs from his grandfather’s 30-year baseball career show a sensuous, serious boy-man in baseball uniform deeply absorbed in the game. His grandfather, Francis Martin Lynch, was offered a minor-league professional contract but turned it down because he was afraid of losing his job at the mine.
All around the shrine and the Mudville stadium are artifacts and small, cartoonistic sculptural statues of heroes of the game (Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline), bats and old-time baseball gloves.
Festooned around the space are the stars and stripes that are so intimately associated with baseball and that realize the original ideology of American culture. One painting by Mesko of the Stars and Stripes, The Shield of the Republic, is in the shape of a sheriff’s badge and is perhaps the only flag in the baseball section of the gallery that associates the flag with the military.
Outside the stadium area is a wonderful installation that feels like the threshold of a small-town ballpark (Mudville). Old-time loudspeakers mounted on a rickety framework nostalgically re-create a post-World War II feeling when America was baseball, Mom and apple pie. On the wall around the threshold are album covers from American classic oldies, including Hank Williams (frequently the sound track for the exhibit), Red Foley, Gene Autry and Leadbelly. But most poignant are the hundreds of American Hollywood film videos that are stacked around the structure and that mediate the threshold between the ballpark and the other half of the exhibition.
Old black-and-white TVs statically flicker away, showing “B” movies (Charlie Chan was on one and a western on another during my visit), suggesting that they’re insulating us from the world and ourselves.
Coming out of the stadium instead of a baseball diamond, we encounter the swept-wing, almost diamond-shaped Stealth bomber and are swept from the nostalgic security of a baseball stadium into the frightening space of war. The folksy ideology of the movies, music and baseball renders us unable to deal with the larger world. In one painting, the original Mudville Nine (the players on Casey’s team) no longer wear their baseball caps but helmets of war, and the baseball bats are now billy clubs. (We learn in the great catalogue essay by curator Dick Goody that Mesko’s father, uncle, aunt and he himself were all in the Marine Corps.)
Al Qaeda, a monstrous, six-legged dragon greets us and we are almost swept into the immediacy of our world conflict.
Big Bill Bob’s Used News and Ammo, a re-created newsstand, is a frightening encyclopedic revisitation through old magazines and newspapers of the last 60 years of world conflict. From Stalin’s face on the cover of a 1943 Time magazine to a contemporary issue with bin Laden to Billy Graham and Timothy McVeigh, the conflict inherent in Mesko’s Mudville museum seems to suggest that we impotently confront our global issues while hanging onto a folksy past.
Mesko’s whole installation has a patriotic heroism in personally confronting the immense surfeit of conflicted ideology that thrusts American culture along — and yet his rejection of the material stuff (computers and technology) of contemporary art and culture is relentless and seems to shield him from dealing with our uncertain future.
The autobiographical components are revelatory about Mesko himself and about our own fundamentally down-home origins. As an artist with his feet in a folk tradition, he celebrates the common man, but as a sophisticated political thinker he recognizes the moral conflict between keeping our old-time freedoms and keeping the oil flowing from the Middle East.
In one comic wall text, Mesko composes a folksy letter to President Bush asking for help in dealing with his trauma over this “September 11 thing and the anthrax and bombs and all.” Bush’s fantasized response is to tell him that “Your letter was discussed at great length at the last Cabinet meeting and someone remembered we had this gas mask in some old government warehouse ...”
The musty antique gas mask sits on a shelf below the letters.
Mesko keeps making edgy paintings, sculptures and objects of recycled materials (there isn’t a piece of stretched canvas in the room) and the philosophical mustiness hangs on. But the cranky humor and beguiling grace of his drawing seems to ensure that his independence and wit will hang on too.
Meadow Brook Art Gallery is on the campus of Oakland University and it’s a nice autumn drive up I-75 to get there.
“No Joy in Mudville: An Exhibition by Eric Mesko” is at Meadow Brook Art Gallery (208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochester) through Nov. 17. Call 248-370-3005.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]