Wandering in wonder

Feb 21, 2007 at 12:00 am
For my friend and I, pulling open a particular red door in Detroit on an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon reveals a weird and wacky world just for the two of us. This world is Zeitgeist Gallery, transformed into the realm of Playful Chaos, an "on-growing" installation show by Jacob Montelongo Martinez (aka Monte), rising artist and co-founder of Detroit’s 555 Gallery.

At the entrance, my friend and I are greeted by eerie silence and dim light. Immediately to the left, a 3-foot-tall skeleton rides on a wagon, grinning. This freaky figure, which certainly succeeds in capturing initial attention, is situated in front of black-painted cardboard paneling that curves out toward the viewer.

Monte’s pack-rat habits have contributed to the intricate and often personal nature of Playful Chaos. On a red cloth tacked to a white wall is the painted outline of a teddy bear with a gaping black eye. This one sad eye compellingly asks (and gets!) our sympathy. A few feet ahead is a pink child’s bicycle with ’60s flower decor. A pair of unlaced burgundy shoes — obviously too large for a child — sit next to the upright bike. We feel a call for innocence and cannot help but feel helpless.

Stuck to the wall behind the bike are newspaper cuttings, maps, sketches and other items, such as a pamphlet encouraging the use of graffiti. Zeitgeist curator Jim Puntigam steps forward to explain, "Some of these are meant to enlighten; some to confuse." As we enter a claustrophobic hallway we realize Monte’s captured the fascination, mystery and exhilarating dread of a haunted house.

Past the hallway is a massive mummy-like figure wrapped in strands of burlap and caged by bent wood. She hangs from a thick rope and dozens of keys (which the artist retrieved from a metro-area mental institution) adorn her body in lopsided rows. A light shines down, illuminating her face with eyes gazing blankly. The entire thing screams defeat and my friend and I linger reluctantly.

Turning around, the most fun part of Playful Chaos comes into focus. A wall is entirely covered by black plastic pouches, each of which is open and filled with bits of fake green turf. In four of the pouches, though, are mannequin legs, splotched with dirt. On the foreground are three suitcases. There is obviously a journey in progress.

Turning to the left, we enter another dark room, where a TV plays a 3-minute looped video of black and white bullfighting images. The film has been manipulated to create a mirror image effect: The men and beasts on screen are doubled. But a big rocket ship commands the center of this chamber, with white paint at the ship’s base giving off the feeling of blast-off motion. Inside the ship, a suspended globe … and suddenly, this urge to warn Captain Kirk. What’s the point of exploring other lands when we will only take our ways with us? When we will impose our customs and laws on those who already have their own?

A still of men and beasts and men behaving like beasts from in Playful Chaos.


Continuing to wander, we emmerge from the darkened chamber to enter an open space. The dominant feature is a huge mural, done by Monte’s cousin and collaborator Eric Martinez. There’s something tragic about it too. The mural portrays a dragon, a tribesman, decaying urban landscape, waves and other images in dark black, gray, blue and green hues. Cardboard extensions jut out from the wall, creating an unsettling 3-D effect. The painting has come alive! There is no hiding!

Blast off! A rocket ship in-progress.


The last playful phase of chaos is a small room more like a large closet, illuminated only by a black light. A spaceship drawing glows on the wall. In the center, a football-sized bull figurine sits on a platform. The outline of the body glows bright green. A string suspends a sharp pencil, which could surely kill the bull, above the bull’s head. Perhaps this is Monte’s version of a memento mori? Before long, though, our eyes drift to objects placed below the bull; some lie on the floor, others on lower levels of the platform. We drop to knees for closer inspection of Uno cards, butterfly drawings and tin cans. For a few minutes, we inspect things and then realize, with a start, we’ve forgotten the impending death of the bull! We’ve let fascination override fear. We’ve succumb to curiosity, thus alleviating the initial threat. My friend and I leave, after Monte’s finale, with a renewed vigor and strange optimism for the day ahead, also full of mystery.

Monte’s cocooned woman, festooned in found keys, waiting to unlock her secret desires.


A closing party for Playful Chaos is 7 p.m.-midnight, Saturday., Feb. 24, with performances by Space Band, JimboBilly Jam Band and Third Grade Bird Cage, at Zeitgeist Gallery, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192.

Heather A. McMacken’s poetry has appeared in Advocate, thedetroiter.com and The Fairfield Review. Send comments to [email protected]