Also: The Portland artist is leaving town
Randy Regier’s “Dime Star” installation in the storefront window of Space Gallery in Portland, Maine, appears to be a 1950s or ‘60s display inviting passersby to become door-to-door salespeople, selling comic books, toys and “International Time” watches (“Shows exact time twice a day—anywhere in the world!”) out of a giant suitcase of samples.
The toys feature “Dime Star,” apparently a futuristic atomic age spaceman-cowboy-police agent-salesman sporting a cowboy hat under his astronaut bubble helmet. He wears a blue police uniform and carries a metal suitcase. He rides a horse with a human head also wearing a bubble helmet. Product packaging bears the slogan: “It’s to be expected.”
The storefront display of toys and watches seems to be set across the lawn of a house. (For all the convincingly wondrous craftsmanship here, the window doesn’t feel full enough and gives a sense of being incomplete.) At the door stands a life-size cutout silhouette of a traveling salesman. Painted across his chest are the words: “This could be you.” The whole thing shouts of smiles and wonder, but radiates fatigue. It’s another of Regier’s piercing deadpan sadsack jokes about American dreams—and their limits. A trading card in the sample case pictures a boy dressed as a cowboy with his head in a bubble helmet riding a space horse. It’s captioned “In your dreams.”
The show, which closes Friday, is a sort of last local hurrah for the Portland artist (pictured above in his studio last July), who recently bought a home and workspace with a storefront display in Wichita, Kansas, and plans to move there in early June. Regier is one of the finest sculptors working in America these days, combining the masterful craftsmanship and story spinning of Ilya Kabakov or Mike Kelley or Christoph Buchel or the Museum of Jurassic Technology or Chris Ware. So his impending departure is a major loss for Portland, and the region.
Regier came by his skills while auto body repairing and painting, repairing antique toys, and freelance cartooning in Salem, Oregon, before moving to Abilene, Kansas, in 1998 to study sculpture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. While earning his bachelor of fine arts degree there in 2003, he constructed his “Fisher Fire Fly” spacecraft, an emerald green ball-shaped capsule atop a cone-shaped thruster with three landing-gear legs. He originally displayed it canted on its side, a red light flashing in the cockpit and the tail covered with soot as if it had crash-landed on the lawn of the school’s quad. It appeared one midnight and disappeared three days later, all without notice. (It was exhibited again at the 2010 DeCordova Museum Biennial in Lincoln, Mass.) The top of the capsule was scuffed and blistered, as if scorched during passage through the earth’s atmosphere. Peer inside the open hatch and you found a metal-frame seat, wires, hoses, switches, and dials. Everything appeared authentically old, right down to the musty industrial smell.
Part of the power of Regier’s art is this masterful craftsmanship (the rocket was in fact a repurposed military sea mine and a distributor from a grain silo) and convincing stagecraft that spins you down a rabbit hole between reality and dreams. Regier moved to Portland to study at Maine College of Art, where he earned his master’s degree in 2007. His thesis project was “Anna Isaak—Subterranean Aspirations,” a sculpture that purported to be the rusty, dusty remains of a dirt track race car built by a Rosie the Riveter after World War II, but that she gave up on when her hopes were frustrated by the misogyny of post-war America. When Regier showed it at Coleman-Burke Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, in 2009, he presented it as if it had been discovered walled into part of the old mill the gallery resides in. You viewed it through a hole smashed through a plasterboard wall.
In snowy January 2010, I drove up to Waterville, Maine, to see Regier’s new installation “NuPenny” (pictured above). He filled a storefront in an old mill along a forlorn street in Waterville, Maine, with a toy store that he’d invented. All the tin toy robots, boats and rockets—including a toy gorilla piloting a flying saucer-tow truck—that he’d built looked as if they were teleported straight from the Eisenhower era. All the signs were in some sort of alien Morse code. The lights were always on, but the place was always locked. And everything inside was in black and white so even if you took a color photo of it, it remained lodged in the past. It felt cheery and fun, until you noticed the fetus in a toy robot’s belly or a snarling wolf attacking a man on one of the packages. Then it seemed to curdle, like something out of “The Twilight Zone.”He installed it again in an old commercial laundry in an out of the way Portland neighborhood in summer 2010 (pictured in the three photos above). A potential problem of the installation was that he’d chosen a place so hidden. How would anyone stumble upon it? While Regier invited people to see it, the bedrock aim is for people to discover this strange “store” and have humdrum life suddenly interrupted by a magical apparition. His theme is our deep romantic desire for wonder amidst life’s usual everyday dreary grind, and the frustrations and disillusionment that often come along with this.
Last September, Regier installed “Out of the Box” at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. It appeared to be a living room, perhaps from the ‘60s, with two tired orange easy chairs around a mod table holding an ashtray full of cigarettes. Boy toys were heaped at the right—a jet plane, a flying saucer, “The Christ of the American Road” driving an orange sports car, a series of rubber John Manshaft action figure playsets (“9:00 to 5:00 Action” or “Antarctica: Stranded Action”). A framed, lit portrait of Jesus flickered on the wall.
Fallen over in front of the left chair was a little “Shokor X-7” metal toy robot, plugged into a wall outlet. The green carpet was singed around the toy, and a lamp had fallen to the floor next to it. A box explained that “Shokor” is a “shocking robot / common house current / electric powered / stands and falls down.” A red tag inside the box read, “Heed warning: Plugged in toy can cause loss of life!”
What happened here was a dime store mystery. I kept imagining two people, one for each chair. Maybe a divorced dad and his son, whom he tries to connect with by showering him with toys. Or maybe just a lonely bachelor, collecting his fancy toys, with an extra chair for some hoped for guest who never comes. He’s fiddling with his electric robot, trying to escape into his dreams, when tragedy strikes.
Now Regier (pictured above working on the “Dime Star” window) is headed back to Kansas. Why return to Kansas? Regier writes me: “Family, both living and roots thereof, and the availability and relative affordability of my dream studio. In short, family proximity and the perfect studio at one low price. And the wind and sky and prairie, miss them all hugely. If you need something more quotable, ‘I envision the Wichita studio as the factory of my best intentions.’”
Randy Regier “Dime Star,” Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, Maine, April 1 to May 13, 2011.
All the photos—except for the ones of the “Fisher Fire Fly,” Anna Isaak’s racecar, and “Out of the Box”—by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.
Check out Regier’s video stream here.