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Atomic Elroy drops a conceptual humor bomb on the FAC Modern



"I like to think of myself as anti-complacency, versus curmudgeonly," says Tom McElroy.

This, coming after we've reminisced about the time in mid-2007 when he asked the Indy not to review his Studio 802-produced, post-modern show, Hamletmachine, because in his opinion we didn't have anyone on staff qualified to understand it.

Good times.

McElroy, 54, who goes by Atomic Elroy and represents somewhat the old guard of artists in the Springs employing sentimental phrases like "since Rodney [Wood] left and Gerry [Riggs] died ..." also considers himself one of the few avant-garde local artists with "a highly developed sense of humor."

Egotism aside, I don't necessarily disagree after touring AtomicElroy's Hometown with him at the FAC Modern.

Here's a mirror

Let's start with the least-obvious joke: "Electrical Outlet" consists of an exhibit card placed next to an outlet inches off the floor, into which he's plugged one of the show's 17 monitors. As earnest as the others, it explains this piece is made of plastic, screw and copper, and belongs to a private collection. Simple, but good for a laugh.

More complex is "Hometown (Arthaus Drive In Theatre)," which Elroy says pokes fun at Michael Garman's Magic Town in Old Colorado City. From the patch of dark carpet cut and marked like a street that runs the length of the gallery floor (into a monitor featuring "bad Kodachrome," such as footage shot on Platte Avenue), "Arthaus" looks like a mini city. Under looping projection of arthaus footage, human figures are frozen in odd poses under foam-board buildings with chalk-drawn windows.

Inside the space, you can put on a set of headphones attached to another looping monitor and hear a mocking voice playfully introduce each denizen and some sights: " ... there's Reverend Righteous, who cures homosexuality ... Army Man, who protects your freedom at the expense of someone else's ... a chorus of losers and poseurs, who've turned low self-esteem into a virtue ... Fort Cartoon, Air Farce Academy, Communist College ..."

And this is the thing about Elroy I've come to appreciate (in time): He's genuinely not afraid to piss people off. His is certainly the best and most lively installation to occupy the room since Matt Barton's playful camping scene at this time last year.

"It's a cardboard town with plastic people," says Elroy of the work. "My intention isn't to hit people over the head with messages. I'd rather ask, 'Do you think?' Here's a mirror, rather than a finger in the eye."

The 40-year local even aims the mirror at the FAC itself, his employer from 1978 to 1990. "Atomic Love Seat (I got your Chihuly right here, baby)" consists of a model atomic bomb in the foyer, where one of the FAC-worshipped artist's chandeliers once hung.

In a departure from the overtly humorous, you need a comprehensive knowledge of Dadaist pioneer Marcel Duchamp Elroy's obvious hero to begin understanding Hometown's centerpiece exhibit.

"Definitely Unfinished or The Large Gasp! (How Hometown reacts to contemporary art)" pays direct homage to Duchamp's famous "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass." The piece consisting of a male and female mannequin posed in front of two screens and three monitors that display old stag-film footage and stop-action sex positions, among other relation-themed images highlights Elroy's love of conceptual versus craft-based art, which is really the only thing a viewer needs to keep in mind when confounded by some aspect of Hometown.

"People shouldn't be expecting my interpretation of Colorado Springs," says Elroy. "Part of it is what's here that's influenced me, and how I've resisted and embraced it. ... But it's obfuscated with artistic juju."

There's a mirror

Elroy playfully acts as the victim of that juju in another piece, "Metaphor (Black Box)," which at first appears to just be a giant, black box in the foyer's far end. But follow the murmured sound of a man's voice around, next to the gallery's exit doors, and you'll discover nine peep holes bored in the box that reveal another monitor on a loop inside.

On the screen, Elroy black-shirted against a black backdrop, giving him a floating-head appearance speaks directly to viewers: "Thanks for looking inside the black box ... Where would artists be if no one looked?"

He points out that Duchamp assigned more importance to the spectator than the artist. Which makes all 10 months of Elroy's filming, editing and conception more about you than him.

Ultimately, though, the black box is also a prison in which Elroy's placed himself. If mining for easy symbolism in the piece's title, you might argue that Colorado Springs has boxed Elroy in since he moved here as a teen from Massachusetts. Springs art connoisseurs have often failed, if they tried at all, to grasp his experimental efforts.

After departing from the FAC, he ran a black-box theater, the Open Egg Theatre, next to Poor Richard's downtown for a few years. The company put on Samuel Beckett works, originals and improvisational theater "really avant-garde shows for the Springs." But as history has shown, that's not the type of work that local audiences have propped up.

Elroy opened Chaos Studios in 1997, later renamed Studio 802 as a reference to its address on North Weber Street. He's put on sporadic theater shows since, while contributing his artwork to galleries ranging from Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Arts Center and Lakewood's The Lab at Belmar to outfits in Spain, the U.K. and Sweden. Here in town last April, he contributed an interactive "art church" to the 1440 Minutes collaboration between Colorado College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Which brings us back to the arts curmudgeon of today, dubbed a "local legend" in recent FAC literature. He shrugs the title off as someone there "being more impressed with me than he should be."

Guess that ego knows limits after all. And, it turns out, the mirror faces the artist as well.

"I'm not that sold on postmodern art," Elroy says. "I'm still asking questions."

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