ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Stepping into Stranger Factory is like walking into the October Country, a region late author Ray Bradbury describes as a place “where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.”
Any day at Stranger Factory, the Nob Hill store and gallery filled with pop surrealistic or lowbrow art, is like Halloween – scary, but in a good chills kind of way, haunting but sometimes hilarious. If you find yourself biting your lip, it might be because a piece of art puts you on edge. But maybe it’s because you’re trying not to laugh out loud.
Big eyes and tentacles
There is, for example, “The Creep Cantina,” a watercolor painting by the artist known as Creeptoons, which depicts several otherworldly characters, at least one a cyclops, sitting at a bar while a black-and-white tentacle reaches in from off canvas to take a glass of wine. That sends all sorts of scenarios racing through your imagination, all of them funny. Hey, did that whatever it is pay for that wine?
“It’s nostalgia-based art, story-based art,” said Kathie Olivas, a multi-media artist and toy designer, who, with her husband, illustrator and designer Brandt Peters, owns and operates Stranger Factory. “Lowbrow or pop surrealism are the popular terms, but I like to think of my art as Sentimentalism. I’m inspired by things in my childhood. Big-eyed art that I would have seen on a 1970s Valentine, objects that make me feel certain emotions, things connected to eras in my life, dressing up for Halloween – even if you have a really horrible costume.”
Even though every day is like Halloween at Stranger Factory, founded in 2011, the gallery has an annual Halloween show. This year’s effort, a group exhibition called “Bewitching VIII” and a display of works by Japanese artist Mizna Wada titled “Witch,” opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and continues through Oct. 28.
Peters, 44, grew up in California, the son of an artist father who introduced his son to underground comix, Japanese toys and the work of cartoonists such as Bernie Wrightson, co-creator of the Swamp Thing – art, artifacts and attitudes that would influence Peters’ own work.
“I was playing with Popeye figures while my friends were playing with G.I. Joes,” Peters said. “I was influenced by a lot of 1930s and 1940s designs.”
Lowbrow art, which sprouted in the late 1970s in the Los Angeles area, has its roots in hot-rod culture, graffiti, punk music, comic books, Mad Magazine, B-movies, TV cartoons, the lurid covers of pulp magazines and paperback books, tiki art and more. If there’s a common thread, it is that these are things of the past that retain a degree of popularity, that inspire memories of more secure times.
“A lot of our artwork helps people feel safe living in this weird, new world,” Peters said.
Like Halloween, the art at Stranger Factory – paintings, sculptures, vinyl toys – makes being scared fun.
“I like weird eyes,” Karl Deuble said. “I like drawing weird dudes.”
Deuble, 34, an artist and an employee at Stranger Factory, was standing in front of a collection of his colorfully crazy and google-eyed paintings on a section of wall in the gallery.
His work will be part of the “Bewitching VIII” exhibit.
Deuble, who is from Belen, started out doing graffiti and was introduced to cartooning by his older brother. His influences include the animated TV sitcoms “Rocko’s Modern Life” and “Ren & Stimpy,” the latter about an emotionally disturbed chihuahua, with bulging eyeballs, by the way, and a good-natured but not-so-bright cat.
He said his art, which begins as abstract splatters, represents the randomness and disarray of everyday life. The garish subjects he paints on top of these splatters are usually heads with those bizarre eyes.
Deuble is a New Mexico artist, but Stranger Factory shows the work of artists from throughout the country and around the world, Europe and Asia.
Japanese artist Mizna Wada will not be at the gallery during the exhibition of her “Witch” pieces. As a child, she reportedly loved horror comics and horror movies but her own work is in a much gentler vein.
“She does really beautiful line work,” Peters said. “She has produced this whole series of little witches, Victorian horror, but in a cute way. It kind of ventures into Goth.”
Lowbrow lives here
A few weeks ago, Olivas said people were lined up down the block outside of Stranger Factory, waiting to get inside to see, and maybe buy from, New York-based artist Tara McPherson, who has been referred to as the crown princess of poster art. Peters said it is not unusual for collectors to travel from other states to purchase work from artists stopping in at the gallery.
Olivas and Peters came to Albuquerque from Florida. They opened the gallery on Carlisle Boulevard seven years ago and moved it to its current location, 3411 Central NE, four years back. Olivas, 42, who had lived in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho until she was 11, said she knew Albuquerque was a good place to show and sell pop surrealism.
She said Robert Williams – painter, cartoonist, hot-rod builder, founder of Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine and acknowledged pioneer of lowbrow art – was born in Albuquerque in 1943 and lived here through his teenage years.
“This is the birthplace of lowbrow art,” she said. “I liked the culture here – the indigenous culture, the car culture, the tattoo culture. There is an energy here.”
For Olivas and Peters, Albuquerque is the October Country.