For a guy from the Bronx who was planning on becoming a doctor, Skylar Fein has come a long way toward earning his New Orleans artistic bona fides.
Throughout his decade-long art career in New Orleans (he moved here for medical school six weeks before Hurricane Katrina in 2005), Fein has used the city and its mythologies as the basis for some of his most memorable and compelling works.
His 2008 installation “Remember the Upstairs Lounge” at the Contemporary Arts Center for the first Prospect New Orleans biennial incorporated the actual and imagined histories of a particular time and place in the city’s gay past to create an environment that was simultaneously harrowing and triumphant.
And in the years since he’s incorporated motifs from iconic New Orleans institutions like K&B drugstores and the Club My-O-My into his own subversive brand of pop art.
That said, explicit references to New Orleans’ past are mostly absent in Fein’s latest series of work on view at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in the Warehouse District. But that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in the sometimes unsettling nostalgia common to the best of his previous work.
“Skylar Fein: Strike Anywhere” comprises over two dozen giant wall-mounted matchbooks made of painted aluminum, rubber and wall board.
Once ubiquitous, always disposable, and now increasingly rare in America’s post-nicotine landscape, matchbooks provided an ideal form for Fein’s ongoing explorations of formalism and memory.
“The matchbook idea has been kicking around my head for 20 years,” said Fein. “It was something I saw when I was a young lad in Seattle. I was putting on punk shows, and another promoter made fliers for one of his shows, and they looked just like big matchbooks — they folded up and even had images of matches screen printed inside. He had taken a flat piece of paper and with one fold had transformed it into something odd and sculptural. It stayed with me. This is how a lot of my ideas work. They cook for years, even decades.”
And Fein points out that there’s a continuity between much of his older work and these new ones: “I’ve done big things before,” he said. “Big cassette tapes, big tickets, big ephemera of all kinds. There’s a long history of artists doing this, of course. It’s like slapstick.”
Indeed, a wicked sense of humor (not to mention a very specific sense of history) marks Fein’s outsized objects, which recall a less jaded time in our pre-digital cultural experience without succumbing to an anodyne nostalgia for the “good old days.”
On the contrary, they’re often suffused with a sense of disappointment and missed opportunities.
How many illustrious artistic careers were launched via that one matchbook’s enthusiastic invitation to “Draw Spunky”? How many budding philatelists held on to their collections of stamps they asked their parents to order for $2.95 and a matchbook cover? (Answer to both: probably not very many.)
Much of Fein’s art straddles that fine line between the melancholy and the ridiculous. It’s one of the main things that sets it apart from much of the more frivolous work out there that also gets lumped under the pop art umbrella.
“Some people think pop art is sunny,” he said. “I don’t. I see it as dark. To me it’s morbid. It’s macabre. There is nothing more concerned with death than pop.”
Included in the show is a series of works Fein created in collaboration with New Orleans street artist MRSA, who Fein says he’s admired for years and with whom he shares certain artistic preoccupations.
“I invited him to do some work in my studio, and I noticed right away that here was someone with a strong sense of formalism. We started making some pieces together.”
And if the pieces come off more as interesting experiments instead of a more finished body of work with a cohesive statement, that seems to be part of Fein’s overall plan as well.
“I think it’s a good start, but it’s only a start,” he said. “We’re going to keep going. We’ve got a lot of ideas for how to merge our skills.”
If Fein’s current work is any indicator, the result is probably going to be something big.