Mark Hogancamp: Picturing Marwencol

Originally published September 28, 2010 by CityArts

In my years of reviewing art, I have seen an extraordinary range of exhibitions from the utterly pretentious to the drop-dead gorgeous. I’ve heard more absurd justifications for shallow art than I care to count. Every so often, I find a jewel, a show in which not only is the work fascinatingly original, but the back-story adds a level of rich meaning.

Mark Hogancamp, a self-taught artist, began his creative journey after a gang outside of a bar in Kingston, N.Y., attacked him. Beaten senseless, he emerged from a coma with severe memory loss and cognitive impairment. After relearning the rudiments of reading and writing, he undertook the process of rebuilding his imagination itself.

Scrounging scrap wood, he began to build a one-sixth-scale model of a fictional World War II-era town in Belgium. He populated the town with an army of Barbie, Ken and G.I. Joe dolls exhaustively customized to look like his friends, family and even his attackers. They populate his ever-evolving tale of his capture, imprisonment and torture by the Nazis, culminating in a triumphant rescue by a bevy of saucy Barbies with guns. The work is neither camp nor a joke. It is a view into one man’s painstaking attempt to reclaim his brain and his life. In Hogancamp’s words, “They broke the connection—they broke the camera in my mind’s eye.”

Hogancamp began documenting his war stories in 2002 with a digital camera, and it is these 13-inch by 17-inch digital prints that are on exhibit at the Esopus Foundation art space in the West Village.

The back-story is amazing and heart-rending; however, these photographs stand on their own as terrific, emotional and deeply affecting contemporary art. Hogancamp has captured the fleeting moments of intimacy, cruelty and humor in his narratives in his images. Some cause a double take when one realizes that they are altered dolls. The effect in the faces and postures is arresting. In others, the overt “doll” qualities themselves can make you look twice. The images work on several levels at once, as does the mind of their creator.

In one photo, a Nazi cuddles a teddy bear while contemplatively smoking a cigarette. In another, a disembodied Nazi hand holds a gun to a woman’s head. Framed like movie stills, but more artful in their composition, these photographs are simply gorgeous. The role of women as rescuers and as the ultimate heroes of Hogancamp’s stories is particularly surreal, as Barbie dolls play the brave partisans. “Captain Hogancamp” himself is the central character in all of his narratives. Rugged, scarred and steely jawed, he photographs the narratives of which he is a part. Art within the art. It’s an astounding world, documented in mesmerizing photographs. Add the wrenching story of the work’s origins and one comes away shaken by the power of the artist’s newfound imagination.

In conjunction with this exhibit, a documentary film about the art and the artist will open at the IFC Center Oct. 8. Shot over the course of four years, the film documents Mark Hogancamp’s life inside his imaginary world as well as his tentative steps to reenter the “real” world, one that had battered his body but did not defeat his mind.

Through Oct. 28, Esopus Space, 64 W. 3rd St. #210, 212-473-0919.

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