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Lost and Found

For artist Poe Dismuke, everything new is old again

By Gretchen Giles

Squatting in the shockingly cold interior of his studio, a converted chicken coop in Petaluma, assemblage artist Poe Dismuke looks up from the disinteg-rating cardboard box of wood scraps that he is determinedly hunting through, looking for fuel ample enough to feed his wood-burning stove. An installation of steamer trunks large enough to hold hat boxes, corsets, and the high poof of floor-length dresses stacks up tall around a wooden structural beam, a gorilla doll smiling down from atop.

A white taxidermist's blank of a roaring bear sits in two pieces on the floor, the powerful hind legs disassociated from the mute scream of the face. Along one wall are woodworking tools and old hardware; across the expanse of dusty wood floor are piled cigar boxes and the yellowing glimmer of old cans; stretched across the top beams of the coop are the plastic flags of a regatta. In this adult version of a mad child's playroom, toys are everywhere.

His breath forming clouds as he speaks, Dismuke talks about his passion for what other people might charitably describe as junk. "I love the way that things age and weather," he says, blowing on his fingers. "I love rust. I love peeling old paint. There's a mystery about it. I love how things look when they've been used and handled a lot, so I give all my work a kind of patina, because I can't stand to see things when they're new."

Once the artist-in-residence at Recycletown--the art center of the Sonoma County dump, where televisions tower into the glint of the sun and leaning sculptures are made from ironing boards and broken skis--Dismuke is an artist whose specialty has been in taking the castoffs and unusables of another age and fashioning them into his own, new vision of the past. Soon to be featured with Los Angeles painter Jim Barsness in a new exhibit, "Figment? Folly? Farce?," opening on March 13 at the California Museum of Art, Dismuke has been having a harder time finding the raw materials of his art. Accordingly, he has changed his focus, creating his own facsimiles of old objects, all formed from products as new as fresh-dug clay.

"Collecting used objects can be a full-time job in itself," explains Dismuke, now crouched down, submitting wood to the hot open mouth of the stove. "And it's getting harder and harder to find things these days, especially up here because there are so many antique dealers. So a couple of years ago I just started manufacturing my own parts. Also, it gives me complete control--if I like something but it's too big or too small, I can change it, I can change everything. Plus, I like using my own materials."

Made of fabric, clay, wood, paper, and steel, Dismuke's figures evoke circuses, carnivals, vaudeville acts--dusty reminders of ersatz love potions and the traveling shows that ceased to exist long before this 42-year-old was born. Sometimes using fabricated steamer trunks as bases--so realistic that they seem to emit a whiff of the smoky lug of steam-driven trains--Dismuke will fill or top them with figures ingeniously made with clay to look like leather and plastic, or use the trunks as toddler-sized coffins from which his handmade ventriloquist's dummies can leer out. "I guess that some of the work that I've done in the past year and a half seems to have a nightmarish quality to it," Dismuke laughs when the reporter gasps over a Napoleonic gorilla figure with a red light bulb stuck in its belly that Dismuke gleefully declares to be a night light. "I never see it. They all seem quite funny to me, but other people notice it."

Preparing for the CMA show, Dismuke moves between different projects, making dolls on the fraternal order of "Frankenstein's Brother" and "Jimmy Durante's Brother"--the latter possessing evil little white nail teeth and Durante's trademark bulbous nose--as well as fashioning moving musical boxes that can be cranked to make the wood-thumping melody of an old child's toy, birds swarming at the top in an endless up-and-down motion.

Embraced by the folk art movement (he'll have a June show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in San Francisco's Fort Mason), Dismuke falls narrowly outside that self-taught category, having educated himself on the fringes of various Bay Area colleges, preferring to hang out in the art department offices rather than in the classroom. But his first influence was his paternal grandfather. "He was one of those Italians from the old country who did everything," Dismuke says, pointing to a worktable that his grandfather made when Dismuke was a child. "He picked mushrooms, he made wine, he built furniture, he built houses, he did electricity, and when I was very little I used to help him build birdhouses."

Dismuke, who bemoans most artists' dismal luck at making any money, and who fashions whimsical summer furniture and working clocks made from the perforated metal of old Chinese-checkers boards to help pay the bills, refuses to continue the birdhouse legacy that might actually earn him some cash in this age of kitschy home artifacts. "The problem is that birdhouses are really in now," he sighs. "That really ruins it for me. I like to be out of fashion."

"Figment?" opens on Wednesday, March 13, with a reception on Friday, March 15, from 5 to 8 p.m., and a gallery talk on Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m. California Museum of Art, Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $2, non-members; free to members and children under 16. 527-0297.

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From the Mar. 7-13, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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