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The Force is Strong with This One

Star Wars art at MM POPup Gallery Cower before Krissy Claw-See's collage "Chibi Ewok Dares You to Say it To His Face." Courtesy of the artist



What exactly is a POP-up gallery? Well, think about the legendary Scottish village Brigadoon, which only appeared for one day every 100 years. Malia Penhall and Matt Jackson's MM POPup Gallery, returning to Arts Alive! this month, operates in much the same manner, only on a more accessible annual schedule. This year the gallery, named for both its episodic existence and the curators' pop-culture fixation, will be open for a scant five hours, making a total of 20 open hours since its inception. The one-night-only show features the some 20 artists' work, all of which relates in some way to Star Wars.

Artists in this year's show include Greg Lysander, Buzz Parker, Gina Tuzzi, Lush Newton, Matt Porr, Marisa Kieselhorst and Megan Atherton. Krissy Claw-See is contributing a collage titled "Chibi Ewok Dares You to Say it To His Face." Painter Michael East will be represented by highway signs adorned with AT-ATs. Brandice Guerra is showing landscapes of Endor. Jackson said Guerra's task was "difficult for her because she doesn't even like Star Wars. She's a Star Trek fan and normally those fan bases don't coincide." The curators themselves will be exhibiting "bandannas with a Rebel Gentleman print," as well as "Death Star Disco Balls."

For Penhall and Jackson, the reasoning behind the exhibition was straightforward. "We have excellent skills and lots of friends who are artists," Penhall says with a laugh. While the friends and business partners' demeanor is chill, their POPup space has proven to be a hot ticket in past years. Now in its fourth season, the gallery can claim both longevity and profitability — both of which are notoriously difficult for independent art spaces serving smaller cities. What's more, it boasts a sales record that more conventionally structured art spaces might envy.

"Last year we sold about 50 percent of the works on the wall," Jackson said. The organizers "want to make buying art fun." They do this by keeping gratification immediate and prices low. Last year, artworks were priced from $20 to $150. "When we sell a piece of art out of the show, we literally take it down off the wall and give it to the buyer, and they can put it under their arm and walk away with it," he explained. "Last year, there was a line outside when we opened the doors."

The curators worked with Eureka Main Street to secure a temporary venue in Old Town. Even though each year's venue has been determined less than a week in advance, Penhall and Jackson pride themselves on displaying art professionally. They work long hours to transform storefront spaces in the days leading up to each opening, accomplishing feats with paint and lighting that make the gallery look deceptively established for its one-night run. "Every year people are surprised," Penhall said. "They say, 'I've never seen this gallery before — have you been here the whole time? And we say that, no, we sprout up like a mushroom overnight.'"

Star Wars fans with an art jones should plan for a fun, indecorous pop-culture themed free-for-all, more like that bar scene in Tatooine than a formal audience with Supreme Chancellor Valorum of the Galactic Republic. Just as Yoda once said, "Already know you that which you need," Penhall notes, "We accept cash and cards, but cash is better."

Jackson and Penhall are longtime fixtures on the local art scene; Penhall exhibits regularly and lectures in the art department at Humboldt State University, while Jackson is one half of the Matt 'n' Adam duo behind Missing Link Records and Soul Night parties at the Jam. Both are connoisseurs of popular culture. When describing art they've shown, they swap pop-archive references from the canonic to the obscure with casual, laser precision. "We've had the Clash's Sandinista printed on a crystal," Penhall muses. "There was a 3-D printed Swamp Thing," Jackson recalls. "We've had the Iron Sheik," she continues. "Mommy Dearest," he responds.

The former housemates' pop-up gallery began in 2013 with a theme of Villains, followed by 2014's Heroes and last year's Monsters. Their decision to structure this year's show around Star Wars represents a move into more defined fan territory — not that fan status is a prerequisite. "Even if you're not a huge fan of the franchise, it's hard not to be affected by it in some way," Penhall observed.

When asked about last year's cinematic revamp of the middle-aged franchise, the curators were guardedly positive. "The newest movies feel more like the original than the second series," Penhall opined. "The visuals feel more lush. It's more like 1978." There's also a tangential geographic connection. Return of the Jedi was filmed on the North Coast, and Ewoks, being forest dwellers that are similar in many ways to "hippy dogs," are nothing if not plausible Humboldt residents.

For those of us who have reached the age of reason, it may be hard to contemplate this latest reboot without a tinge of cynicism. At this point the Star Wars series is a financial juggernaut and the recent films retain little of the experimental feel that made the original movies seem fresh 40 years ago. With each renewal, the quotable nuggets of New Age wisdom credited to Queen Amidala and Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn sound more like something you'd hear from a suburban therapist catering to the gilded preteens of Orange County. Of course, that may not matter much to the kids at whom this revamp is primarily targeted.

But anyone who's spent time around fanboys and girls can attest that systemic critique is beside the point. In these artists' circles the Star Wars universe is an unquestioned, pre-existing condition but it's also an incubator for independent creative acts. The spin-off projects people produce in response to commercialized fantasy worlds achieve levels of inspiration, incisiveness and plain oddity that easily outstrip the original source, as this exhibition shows.

MM POPup Gallery's Art Wars: the Redwood Empire Strikes Back shows from 5-10 p.m. on May 7 at 424 Third St.


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