The eyes have it 

Mike deMeng's layered history

Mike deMeng’s inventive, surreal mixed-media pieces give you the feeling you’re being watched. This sense emanates from the entire collection of four dozen pieces showing through November at the Sutton Gallery, and not only because the artist uses eyes everywhere. DeMeng, who lives in Missoula, takes old, found objects, recycled metals, ancient newsprint, vintage daguerreotypes, wires, coils, springs and nails to compose layered works of peculiar ferocity.

The layering suggests that things are not as they seem, and that there is more to see than can be seen, those eyes inviting and mocking at the same time. In “Wandering Mind,” one in a series of four lightboxes, a 5-inch-square wooden frame hugs the mouth of a metal box. It is fitted with a pane of glass, then one or two more pieces of glass behind that. On each surface deMeng has left a mark. The frame is rigid with old soil, and the first pane is painted in delicate tiny strokes, fogged with amber color and then scraped. Peer inside and ghostly faces emerge as shadowy, tiny negatives. The box is illuminated by a murky glow, and the electrical cord bears a skeletal wire as it snakes toward the outlet. In another lighted box piece titled “Testing…1…2…3…,” a glass peephole set into an empty watch face invites you to press up close and abandon yourself to an unseen world. The interior is crammed with images and textures, scraps of newsprint, numbers and a photo that preserves a long-dead young man, someone else’s eyes torn from another picture and superimposed on his face.

DeMeng has been instrumental in Missoula’s Festival of the Dead for over a decade, and his work bears the influence of sacred Latin American icons and shrines, as well as Hindu imagery. He hints that art is sacred, its own religion, and that the right place for his pieces would be in a devotional space. Many of the pieces are playful and humorous, yet still maintain a stately composition and an aggressive symmetry. In a group titled “Head Sea Scrolls” and numbered 1 through 3, deMeng drapes thin lengths of canvas from toilet paper holders, the long strips a beautiful and crazy narrative, the free association that seems to be forever unspooling from deMeng’s mind.

The show also includes 6-foot totems, a few decorated and transformed pieces of mail, a costumed wine bottle and a series of keys, mounted to span an entire wall of the gallery. The objects are important, inspiring in the elaborate work wrought upon them. With such names as “Parlor Key,” “Salon Key” and “Observatory Key,” the key collection evokes a cavernous, enchanted, lost mansion. Each piece begins with a single key, which deMeng has dressed in imaginative constructions that speak the function of the room they open. “Kitchen Key” bears a half-eaten spoon bound tightly to the key. “Bedroom Key” shows a woman’s alluring face behind a ball of glass, metal wings spread on either side of the key for a welcoming embrace.

This attention to the minute gives all of deMeng’s pieces an air of exquisite obsession. Even the large pieces, the totems, feature tiny daubs of paint everywhere. In “Gender Identity Crisis,” the belly of a box is speckled with tiny newsprint letters, each one cut and mounted on the head of a nail protruding an inch or so. Close inspection of the show reveals tiny hearts, words, hands. “Interiors” uses an ancient book, its cover open like a door, a window cut into it, its pages glued shut with gilt edging. A tiny, centered, ancient face stares out, again layered with eyes.

It is tempting to pick apart the elements that, gathered together, make up a single piece. So much is happening, and the antique nature of the materials inspires curiosity and melancholy, as if you could unlock some forgotten mystery. Perhaps, you think, breaking deMeng’s code will help you. But to see the pieces in their parts would be to miss the power of their presence in total. They are imposing animals, these pieces, writhing with artistic authority and a sense of industrial use. He gives humanity to the inanimate and renders new altars for the dead.

While a sense of sacred enchantment prevails, deMeng’s pieces are also at home with the profane, the resolutely solid and the fixed—old straps of leather, rusted cogs, endless nails and corporeal reminders everywhere in the form of hands, eyes and bodies that look pulled from medical textbooks. The pieces provoke description but challenge the describer at the same time: Where to stop? DeMeng does not stop, his layers a history awaiting the future.

Mike deMeng’s work is up through Dec. 3 at the Sutton Gallery, 121 West Broadway.

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