Welcome to the Mad House
By Stacy Davies
I had originally planned to write this piece solely from an art critic’s point of view about a small, quirky installation, The Nairobi Trio, currently housed in the PO Gallery space of Pomona. But as I thought more about the piece, I couldn’t stop thinking even more about its artist, A.S. Ashley, and I realized in short time that all quirky, dark, bewildering trails of thought always seem to lead back to Mr. Ashley—all several hundred of him.
As one of the Pomona Art Colony’s resident and resilient creators, Ashley never fails to throw a maniac’s wrench into the pop culture soup, and his brew is a concoction that requires much consideration, as well as an ability and willingness to embrace the bizarreness and breadth of the vision.
After all, Ashley collects real dead animal remains and plasters them onto blocks of wire mesh and coats them with an everlasting epoxy, and he puts fake baby skeletons into children’s car seats and covers them in plastic. He also creates a 9-foot crucified Venus de Milo with trout forearms—a brilliant coup if ever there was one. His exquisite, monolithic paintings come from a different Ashley, and are tributes to the icons from film and television that live inside his head, and who are with him at all times: Jackie Gleason, Billy Mumy and Margaret Hamilton. (Unbelievably, he uses regular old house paint to create them.) Sometimes, his paintings turn profound, as in his Leni Riefenstahl/Masai warrior piece, rendered from a photo of the former Nazi filmmaker’s trip to Africa, where she fell in love with its continent and its people; the “couple” is set against a giant swastika. Then there are the pieces that come from the autobiographical Ashley and seem simple and benign at first glance: a huge, baby-blue banner with duplicate photographs of a smiling, wee Ashley side by side, one with a terrible orange ring of thrown-up children’s aspirin around the mouth.
The one thing all of these pieces have in common, besides the man, is that Ashley never asks you to think anything about them except what you will think. In fact, if you take a quick glance and walk away because you just can’t register what you’re seeing, or perhaps can’t find the depth within the piece (which, by design, can require some diligent mining) Ashley remains silent. He’d like you to understand, of course, at least in your own way. And he might, though he’d never admit it, lose a little sleep over some of the confusion. But like all those who are truly dedicated and often tormented, he can’t waste time making you understand—and he would never consider changing his game to aid you the next time around. His agenda cannot be altered—just blame it on his DNA.
He might, therefore, be cross with me for letting some of the bats out of his bag, but while I don’t feel I need to help you understand his latest work, The Nairobi Trio, any more than he does, I do think that knowing a bit about its maestro will give you an extra appreciation and a unique insight that regular passersby won’t get. As a tangent to the dA Center for the Arts’ Dia los Muertos exhibit, Ashley’s funky, musical, multimedia amalgamation (that has a looped retro TV show clip and skeletons at its heart) is a fusion of many things, which, after reading my previous graphs, should all seem in perfect accord: his fascination with the Day of the Dead rituals, their altars and honoring of family members who have passed; his acknowledgement that people like Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lemmon and Kovacs’ wife, Edie Adams are some of the family members he would have chosen instead of his own had he been able; the plain observation that our 1950s culture saw nothing remotely offensive in people dressing up like apes and claiming they were from Nairobi; the fact that African-Americans don’t have any racist getups they can put on to mess with whitey; his love of satirist painter Robert Colescott and homage to Colescott’s Van Gogh riff, Eat Dem Taters using KFC buckets of bananas and potatoes; his subtle swipe at perceived freedoms on Election Day (when the exhibit debuted) by having one of his skeletal band members wave an American flag; and his even more subtle use of black skeletons because, as he puts it, “underneath all this skin, everyone’s bones are white.”
Whether you “get it” or not is probably a crap shoot, and whether you “like” it or not, even more of a gamble. But the fact remains that A.S. Ashley has guts; the guts to follow his obsessions regardless of where they might lead, and the guts to shove them into a spotlight. Crazy? Perhaps. But it’s his mad house, and even a brief glimpse of the interior promises a spectacle you won’t soon forget.
A.S. Ashley’s The Nairobi Trio at the PO Gallery, northeast corner of 256 Main & Third streets, Pomona. Thru Dec. 4.