I. Avatars

If you’ve played an online game — and social media is an online game — there’s a good chance you’ve participated in an art project.  A modest one, one circumscribed by the game’s parameters, but a common act of creation nevertheless. You’ve made a small digital stand-in for yourself, dressed it up, equipped it, and set it adrift in a challenging realm.  Many games encourage you to customize your doll.  You can pick a hairstyle, skin tone, gender, and a handle that represents you and your temperament. Sometimes you can even make yourself nonhuman: a monster, or a fantasy creature, or even a dog.

II. Artifacts

Hudson County galleries have long been friendly territory for makers of figurines. Dan Fenelon populated Novado Gallery with Play-Doh colored statuettes of hybrid animals pulled from the wilder parts of his carnivalesque psyche. Macauley Norman’s fetching little duck, made with a 3-D pen, roosted among other plastic squiggle-objects at Deep Space. Some of the most memorable pieces of the Studio Tour were desktop buddies, including the amazing likenesses of rappers exhibiting their wall-shattering superpowers on platforms in DISTORT’s studio in the Tenmarc Building. Cynics might point out that these artifacts are perfect for Instagram, and lend themselves well to the dreaded NFT game, too. Three-dimensional printers are fun to play with, and plastic dolls are more durable and portable than ceramics or paintings on canvas. But I suspect that the reason why figurines have gained traction in local shows is because many of our most dynamic artists spent their childhoods monkeying around on bedroom floors with action figures. Now they’re grown up, but not really. They’re going to want to invent — and command — some superheroes of their own.

III. Ollie

At the sober Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, there’s a situation comedy playing. Jayson Musson, a conceptualist who has occasionally appeared in character as irreverent critic Hennessey Youngman, has mounted a corrosive commentary on the state of art history in three episodes. He’s sharing the screen with a raggedy gray Muppet-like character named Ollie, who drinks, cusses, disrespects the classics, makes lewd gestures, and, depending on how you understand the finale, may kill off his maker and usurp his position as narrator. “His History of Art,” which runs until Nov. 13, consists mostly of conversations between Musson and the puppet on a Mister Rogers-like set. Ollie is, transparently, a projection of Musson’s id, and an expression of his frustration with the power dynamics of the art business. Things that would sound ferociously resentful coming from a grown man are merely cheeky when put in the furry, filthy mouth of a rabbit. There’s a reason why Bugs Bunny was given a voice that combined the accents of the two toughest parts of New York City: Brooklyn and the Bronx. The ventriloquist puts his most savage insults in the mouth of Charlie McCarthy on his knee, but a good satirical cartoonist doesn’t even have to say a word. He just uses the magic of representation to bring a mascot to life — and then he turns that mascot loose.

IV. Dog Unchained

Alexander Lansang, the creator of BARC the Dog, appears in “Machines I Wish Existed,” his confounding, dizzy, brilliant, bottomless well of a solo show at Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison). He’s there in character, and with a fake moustache taped to his face, as Bruce Biggums, a deadly serious newscaster, who turns his furrowed brow on visitors in a few postcards. Biggums is the host of “Secret Cult,” a series of three independent films that’ll air at 6 p.m. at Deep Space on Sunday night. The artists he’s gathered for the film show have all thought about the avatar, and the wild worlds we might be able to explore if we could assume the identity of a character in a comic strip or a Claymation short, or just lose ourselves in washes of digital color. Bayonne’s talented John Tokar imagines a gorgeous (and very Jersey) camp where the rural and industrial are gloriously mixed up, while Ben Fine’s hallucinatory Hamilton Park provided a brightly colored escape during the darkest days of lockdown. Elliot Lobell has created a figurine of his own: a purple Yeti with a cheerful disposition. He sold action figures at ComicCon.

But there’s nobody in town who has explored the intersection between the figurine, the videogame avatar, the escapist fantasy of mad science, and the alternately dangerous and carnivalesque urban landscape as comprehensively as Lansang has. BARC is both his creation and his personal transmutation: a grey-blue, razor-toothed, shield-nosed canine whose negotiation of the city provides this show its protagonist and most of its drama. Unlike other cartoonists who stand apart from their creations, it’s never clear where Lansang ends and BARC begins. The show, notably, is credited to the dog, not the human, as if BARC has escaped the studio, and Lansang is desperately chasing his tail. 

There’s nobody in town who has explored the intersection between the figurine, the videogame avatar, the escapist fantasy of mad science, and the dangerous, carnivalesque urban landscape as comprehensively as Lansang has.

As avatars often do, BARC takes many shapes. In “Machines I Wish Existed,” he is, among other things, a paper cut-out, an x-eyed, splay-legged plushie, a comic book character, a snarling 3-D printed figurine, a battered generalissimo on the painted screen of a wooden walkie-talkie, and a menacing amoeboid shape in a plastic petri dish. But BARC and Lansang do their best work on canvas and in acrylic paint, where they navigate scenes of monstrous peril. These paintings are wondrously busy and bold and feel like a fevered offloading of contemporary anxieties. In “Triple Leopard,” a desperate, mud-spattered BARC is stalked by a trio of caution-yellow cats and a python with fangs the size of his snout.  The snake sinks those into his neck in “Serpent Asphyxiation,” where BARC, under a merciless pink sun, roars out an anguished squiggle-tongued protest that dominates the top of the frame. Another dog is in control, and in a lab coat, in “Death Ray,” where he obliterates crash test dummies with knives, heat guns, and splatters of ectoplasm.

These works are comics in acrylic, and comics, that deeply American form, do not always get the respect they deserve. In the hands of a master, few styles of visual representation go for the jugular as thrillingly as cartoons do. BARC is as elastic and as capable of unraveling (and raveling right back) as any of Meredith Gran’s characters in Octopus Pie, and Lansang has appointed his scenes with as much telling detail as Hergé gave Tintin, or Buttered Roll, another urban storyteller, gave his minotaur-boy at his show at SMUSH Gallery. Lansang is not disguising his sources. He traces the origins of the BARC style back to televised cartoons in the 1990s. It’s unlikely that you watched any of these shows, and it wouldn’t matter to your experience of “Machines I Wish Existed” if you had. What matters is that the young Lansang inhaled this stuff, and now he’s blowing it all back out in a great billowing puff of breath. It’s a cloud thick enough to get lost in, and you’re encouraged to do just that.

To that end, he’s brought BARC’s laboratory to life with the sort of contraptions that the dog might turn on his adversaries. An old piece of computer equipment is hooked up to an animal skull and a device that evokes a Geiger counter; its connections are patchy and seem to imply a coming surge of radioactive energy.  Even more threatening is a mercy seat complete with a targeting visor attached to a stack of electronic components. (Lansang has fiddled with the dials and buttons so their calibrations are written in hyperbolic BARC lingo; he’s obsessed over each detail.) The machines interact with the paintings and artifacts that surround them: a series of four marvelously ghastly pictures on the west wall of the gallery reveal the consequences of entering the coffin-like time-travel portal that leans against the south wall. These devices feel both clever and jerry-rigged — residue of experiments done by a crazed physicist who doesn’t entirely care if he blows up the neighborhood. That these are machines that Lansang wishes existed tells you quite about Lansang, and the anarchic streak that burns like a neon light straight through his cracked worldview.

But what is a small dog to do?  BARC snarls and growls and flaunts a mouth big enough to swallow the frame, but he’s dwarfed by his surroundings and beset by predators. Worse still, he’s constantly on film: he’s either subject to the bloody brain-scanning of the scientist dog, pinned by the surveillance cameras in the factory, or captured live in the midst of his most desperate moments by a TV crew. Imperiled, outgunned, and exposed, he must turn to contraptions and other oblique strategies to level the field. 

Because BARC is scrappy, a prisoner of city pavements strewn with hypodermic needles, oozing trash cans, rolls of toilet paper, and unseen authorities dangling police handcuffs, he must fashion the instruments of his revenge out of the materials that his environment gives him. In one sinewy pen and ink sketch, an opportunistic BARC goes “Korprit”: he seethes with resentment from a too-tight chair in a stinking cubicle, he makes nice with a cigar-smoking striped-suit mogul, and he strides, Master of the Universe-style, atop a mountain of money. Usually, though, he must breathe life back into the unplugged, or summon allies from beyond the veil of extinction, as Scientist-BARC does with a machine that reconstructs a T-Rex and a woolly mammoth. 

No devices escape Lansang’s eye: all things that can help BARC get by are lovingly rendered, including the rickety solar panels and graffiti-tagged propane tanks that power the “Tele Trav” time machine, and a humble air conditioner on the wall of the lab, blowing red streamers around. Even if they short out or fizzle, all these devices are plastic friends, extensions of the dog’s fundamental struggle, and Lansang’s too. Because BARC, to the artist, is more than just a brand. He’s a means of survival. 

V. The Rabbit Hole

The centerpiece of “Machines I Wish Existed” doesn’t hang on a wall, and it’s not habitable, either — at least not in the conventional sense. Lansang has filled a small square dais with tales of BARC, some in comic form, some compiled and bound into prose books, some elaborated with near-scientific precision, some conceived, quite clearly, while zonked. It’s here where we get our best look at other inhabitants of the BARCverse, including CRAB (BARC spelled backward, as the astute will surely notice), who might be an adversary, or a God, or just a pain in the ass. There are also hints of a Crab Conspiracy that you’re invited to unravel, or pick at, or laugh at, or obsess over. One book contains photographs of Lansang’s friends, or maybe BARC’s, in costume as their own avatars, combatants in a private battle-game that you’re certainly invited to join, if you’re mad enough — a game that may resemble your life.

Why would you?  Well, as a human being, you’re a captive of flesh, blood, and bone, subject to the same frailties and ordinary weaknesses that have felled the millions who have come before you. But as an insignia — one that could be fashioned into a figurine — you might be both flexible and protean. You might be able to say things a civilized person wouldn’t be allowed to say, and express yourself in a manner that a civilized person would disdain.  You could lead with your irreverence or your resilience; like a character in a video game, you could re-load your way to immortality.  You might escape: your adversaries, your cares, yourself. 

This is how visual art at its most vital has come to be appreciated, confronted, and consumed in a time as strange and perilous as the still-early twenty-first century. Not as a two-dimensional picture on a wall to be valued at three thousand dollars and then flipped to another collector for six thousand, because that’s a game for the few. For the many, there are avatars, adoptable characters, action figures, roles we assume and personae we wear, sometimes like armor, sometimes like dresses to the ball, and sometimes like a dog collar. For the imaginatively challenged, there are easy ones: the plug and play lives of the Sims, and simple choices we make for our electronic doubles. Those are fun, and occasionally rewarding. But better by far is a made-up world big enough to plunge into — one that shimmers with color and adventure, drips with danger and thrums with laughter, and reassures us that even if we’re torched, and scanned, and humiliated, and mutilated, we’ll always make it to the next frame. 

trismccall@gmail.com

Tris McCall

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...