Nathan Margoni remembers childhood in terms of its relation to horror. It was something real, too real, in nights of sweat and strange sounds in the darkness, but it was also a prop in daytime play. A child might kill and be killed half a dozen times in an hour of pretend fun, or wage whole wars in a videogame. In darkness we feared demons, in light we wore their faces to make friends scream with giddiness.
The latter spirit of Halloween revelry fuels Cleveland Institute of Art graduate and current Michigan resident Margoni's I am a Monster exhibit at Proximity gallery. The eight large-scale pieces in the show are characterized by both exhaustively detailed craftsmanship—no detail is spared on any cracked fingernail, yellow tooth, or ingrown hair—and a firm resistance to taking itself seriously. Or perhaps, it takes very seriously its commitment to fun and accessibility. It is one of the few gallery shows inspired by childhood that children will enjoy.
In paintings and sculpture, Margoni is cast as a giant, beastly version of himself terrorizing puny humans. Interestingly, the monsters' victims are also Margoni, sometimes in sketched self-portraits, but also in photographs posed in stances of helpless terror, cut out and pasted collage-style into the action of a rampage. The shared identity of the beast and his prey works to reinforce the milieu of childhood imaginative games. One child playing by themselves, perhaps aided by dolls or figurines, will do the part of protagonist and villain by themselves. Margoni repeats that duality here.
In the mixed-media acrylic painting and collage "Oh No," a house-sized bare foot drops from the clouds while a diminutive Margoni tries to flee from something he cannot possibly escape. The title piece, "I Am A Monster" conscripts the viewer into monstrosity. Participants are invited to climb behind an eight-foot bust of a snarling Margoni, accented with papier-mâché moles and tufts of recovered human hair. Behind the pupils, two peep holes use distorting optical effects to make the rest of the gallery look smaller, affording a troll's-eye-view. Pulling a lever flaps the ogre's jaws open and shut, snapping at broken bits of dolls.
"Run For Your Life" shifts the viewer back into the role of victim. Perhaps privileging us with the final viewpoint of the doomed Margoni in "Oh No," "Run For Your Life" depicts a four yard-long long foot, seen from below. It hangs from the ceiling, looming over the viewer in an unending moment of imminent squashing. The sole, like a mobile mass of tar, has seized debris that has come into contact with, and slowly sucks it down below its gelatinous surface. Plastic grocery bags, a Lowe's receipt, beer cans, an unstuffed teddy bear, and $0.65 worth of loose change cling trapped in the heel and balls of the toes. Faces and hands of victims already stepped on struggle to escape the gooey mess like drowning men clamoring towards the surface. Or, resigned to their doom, they try to save others, shouting warnings ("LOOK OUT!!").
Margoni's work is meant to reawaken childhood "innocence" which is not ignorant of morbid and disgusting things, but which can engage them without either fear or shame. It is an invitation to shed self-consciousness for an hour and discover something strange and exciting.
I am a Monster will run through July 12 at 1667 East 40th St. For more information, call 216-262-8903 or go to proximitycleveland.com.