Art Attack

Don't come whining to us if you wet your pants in the middle of the Arlington Museum of Art this week. You'll get no sympathy here. We did it once, although sadly it had nothing to do with being scared silly during the museum's annual October fright-fest, Dungeon of Doom. Our experience involved way too much wine before an art opening, where even more (free) wine was consumed, and a shocking encounter with a former boyfriend for whom, apparently, we still had deep feelings and/or issues. But we digress.

Be sure to go before you go to the AMA's very dark, very scary and uniquely artist-created haunted house fund-raiser. This is the 13th year that local artists, including John Hernandez and Rachel Bounds, have transformed the basement of the former JC Penney department store into a surreal experience, literally in and figuratively of the netherworld. The AMA's recent remodeling and expansion enlarged the Dungeon, and created more opportunities for cryptic oxymorons, such as live mummies and the living dead.

Hernandez, a Dallas native who now lives in San Antonio, first became involved with the AMA's underground project four years ago, when he approached the idea of haunting the museum's abandoned basement with art. Hernandez's work is figurative and macho, concerned with power and intense color and heavily informed by the pop art imagery of the cartoon and movie world. "My paintings are really three-dimensional, cartoonish, comic strip-styled constructions made of wood," he says. "They hang on the wall, but leap out at the viewer, something like a pop-up book illustration." For the AMA, he created both wall-mounted and freestanding figures. "I used film images," he says, "like the little girl that eats her mother in Night of the Living Dead. I built some of the invisible brains that fly around in the 1960s classic Fiend Without a Face. The brains attacked by wrapping their spinal cords around people's necks." Flapping cordage should make someone break out the Depends.

Campy horror movies aside, there's a sense of hidden places and hidden forms in the Dungeon of Doom, and part of the unsettling experience comes from the mix of Hernandez's characters with real people in costume. "Sometimes you don't know which is which," Kay Kuser, AMA volunteer and project chairwoman, says. Kuser and her husband, Milton, have overseen the haunted house project since it began in 1989. Kay corrals the actors, who lurk in costume to startle passers-by and strictly enforces the museum's "do not touch the visitors" policy. She's also the snake lady each weekend night, bringing to life Medusa, the mythical woman-with-snakes-for-hair. Milton checks and resets the special effects lighting each night of the event and manages the nuts and bolts of the art-filled basement space.

Artist, curator and AMA program and events coordinator Rachel Bounds painted new scenes this year, including the graveyard and the Wizard of Oz room. The larger, darker basement is configured into a circuitous trail, which she says confounds even the most alert visitor. "On the art side, the experience is very film noir," Bounds says. "It's about darkness and what you imagine from the darkness. There are discernible colors and patterns and imagery on the floor or walls, or something coming from the ceiling. But it's very dimly lit. The fear comes from not knowing what's going to happen."

We're not sure if the Arlington Museum of Art is pulling your (damp) leg when it cautions that Dungeon of Doom is "not recommended for persons with heart problems," but they are serious about the age restriction--11 and up. The price of admission is discounted by $2 if you bring a canned food donation, which goes to the local food bank. Your ticket money supports the not-for-profit museum, and Bounds says Dungeon of Doom is the AMA's largest fund-raiser each year. "All earnings from the haunted house go to our educational programs such as 'Art Around the Corner,' which allows 12 local elementary schools to bring students to the museum throughout the year to participate in art activities free of charge," she says.

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Annabelle Massey Helber