It’s not every day that you step into a gallery during normal hours to find the artist, bearded and bandana-skulled, painstakingly remounting his show with a carpenter’s Leatherman Wave multi-tool and paint-splattered stepladder.
But that’s exactly what Jesse Carson Smigel, 29, who physically resembles a lumberjack, is doing on a Wednesday afternoon. He yanks staples from a curved wall to smooth out the wrinkles in his massive, 24-feet-by-8-feet banner-printed digital rendering, “Kitty Cat Borg Attack: A War Tribute Memorial.”
“We knew what we were getting into when we invited Jesse Smigel to do a show,” Patrick Gaffey, cultural program supervisor for the Winchester Cultural Center, had told me minutes earlier with bemusement. “We realized things would be … unusual.”
There’s another unusual aspect of Smigel’s show apart from its title, The Perfect Future Is Sanitary … The Sanitary Future Is PURRRfect. It had been up for more than a week without being fully installed. It could be Smigel’s obvious perfectionism that is thwarting his show’s completion. Or maybe it’s the fact that he simply couldn’t secure the right paint to apply to “Starship Enterpaws: Prototype Bio-Engineered Living Fleet War Vessel.” It’s a foam space vehicle with a 5-foot wingspan that now hangs from the ceiling in the gallery’s center.
A professional carpenter and scenic artist, Smigel studied art at UNLV. (His bachelor of fine arts degree is nearly done.) He has a reputation for work that is eccentric. He has been called an outlaw yard sculptor. He has been called an asshole. He has carved giant gnome lawn ornaments from blocks of Styrofoam. He has been commissioned by the National Atomic Testing Museum to render the foam likeness of a mushroom cloud. He has attended dinner parties wearing mechanical bunny ears that respond to body temperature, wiggling whenever the conversation turns toward sexual matters. Years ago, over beers, he boasted to me that he was the art curator at Huntridge Tavern, the bar in which we were drinking. There was, in fact, very interesting art hanging on the walls.
Despite an impish attitude, Smigel strives to make art that people like. Last year he began painting cats on ice cream cones. He learned how attractive and in-demand his cats were from participating in local group exhibits. Eventually he hit on the idea of pitting his cats against Borg cubes. (The Borg are a villainous alien race from Star Trek that pilot space-faring, death-dealing cubes.) He completed a rendering, and the response was so good he decided to base a show on the concept. Inspired by comical sci-fi writers such as Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Smigel imagined a future he wanted to inhabit.
A world that revolved around kitties and advanced technology.
“It went wrong somewhere,” he says. “After thinking about it, I realized the future I wanted to live in wasn’t a world I could control.”
The only entity demonstrating authority in Smigel’s ruined Earth in the year 4013 is an all-powerful, monolithic corporation known as The Fleet. Humankind is being relegated to transport ships fueled by Catonium. This resource is derived from giant, genetically modified space cats, which protect the ships from Borg assaults.
Life aboard these vessels isn’t easy for humans. They require special facial creams to generate emotional responses. Cleverly, a two-minute video advertisement for “Smi-Gel Brand Smile Gel”—get it?—loops on a flat-screen on the gallery wall. In it, a rictus-grimacing, lab-coated Fleet scientist grotesquely and inordinately applies green goo to a Fleet soldier’s mirthless visage. In seconds, his frown turns upside down.
There are propaganda posters urging people to be hygienic and report genetic experiments. “Unclean? Sanitize!” screams one poster. “Keep Clean If You Want To Live” warns another. “I Can Haz Face Hugger?” asks an H.R. Giger-dreamed LOLcat 2,000 years from the future.
More disturbingly, there’s a 7-foot hairless white bear with an oversize human ear sprouting from its back. The plastic sculpture is called “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear: Cloned Primitive Earth Predator Hunt Taxidermy,” and it, too, offers a piece of a larger narrative puzzle. Apparently, in the future, there is a human elite class that still relishes the thrill of real hunting, made possible thanks to cloning technology.
With its emphasis on artificially induced emotions, scary genetic mods and military corporatism, Sanitary Future makes it seem like Smigel might have a serious message lurking beneath the humor. He doesn’t rule out the idea that his show serves as a commentary on our present-day lives. But he also refuses to embrace any committed satirical impulse.
“This isn’t a politically charged show,” Smigel says. “It’s a hypothetical situation. It’s science fiction.”
As an example, he makes a comparison between films: Al Gore’s global-warming doc An Inconvenient Truth and Pixar’s WALL-E. Both movies deal with shared issues, but no one would ever evaluate one against the other. It’s the animated film Smigel prefers, since its message is deeply embedded into a larger fictional narrative.
“This is my cute story about a little robot,” he says. “But with cats.”
There’s a robotic cat. An adorable, fluffy-white animatronic feline named Snowball whirrs and purrs inside a Fleet mining resource compartment. Tap on the acrylic sphere and watch her respond.
But the show’s centerpiece is “Kitty Cat Borg Attack.” Photo-shopped images of various cats—some actually cared for by Smigel—show them digging their claws into the cubes as if they were scratching posts. The cat empire-crushing cubes strike back by emitting green lasers, causing the kitties to look surprised, their ears laying flat.
Those of us who had the distinctly odd pleasure of attending Smigel’s opening reception on May 31 might have shared a similar expression of astonishment. Especially as a full-on laser-tag battle erupted between costumed Fleet soldiers and the rebel alliance led by Smigel himself.
A food riot was under way.
“I’m not used to stretching out one of my puns or jokes this long,” said Smigel a few days before the performance component of his show was conducted. It marked the first time he incorporated a performance piece into an art show. Before the event, he had spent a $1,000 Internet-ordering a complete 1986 set of vintage, Worlds of Wonder-brand Lazer Tag game kits replete with blasters and sensor vests and helmets. Then he invited the kids from the Winchester skateboard team to dress up as Fleet soldiers. There was a rehearsal, maybe two.
Smigel certainly explored his theatrical side. On the night of the reception, each guest was offered one small cup of water and one small cup containing two Good & Plenty candies—and nothing else. This would be the only food and drink offered at the event.
Smigel played the role of resistance leader, entering the gallery with his gang of rebel fighters. Lazer-tagging commenced, a physical flurry of beeping and blinking and shoes squeaking. He grabbed the giant container of licorice from the Fleet enforcers, half of which scattered on the floor in the pandemonium, and ran out of the gallery and into the Winchester lobby.
Smigel and his liberation force escaped outside, finding refuge in Winchester’s desert gardens. It was a small victory in an otherwise hilariously dystopian show that defies easy, um, CATegorization.