Cabinets of Eccentricity

Tom Sale strikes an air somewhere between prince and court jester--he is at once a head-honcho healer and dandy snake-oil salesman. Transforming old suitcases and book covers into looking-glass extravaganzas of macabre and mayhem, he breathes new life and perversity into the old tradition of the cabinet of curiosity.

A huckster of the weird in our own moment, Sale brings to mind Ole Worm (1588-1654), the long-ago purveyor of knowledge in the form of collected specimens and artifacts. His Museum Wormianum of 1655, a cabinet of curiosity to beat all others, brought sensual pleasure to the German monarch's eyes. As with the king's Wunderkammer, literally his "chamber of wonder," Sale's coffers and book covers reinforce the act of voyeurism as full-body titillation. The plants, animals, ethnography and antique forms of the king's nine-part journey were meant to scientifically illustrate the universe in a nutshell--to give him a sense of how the macro relates to the micro. Sale's work similarly offers narratives of genesis and life's unfolding. The works by Sale in the show Bedtime Stories and Other Night Terrors at Gray Matters Gallery collectively offer a tale of how one ludicrous god begat time, space and man in the form of shell-backed hares, sparkling gold barnacles, hapless heads in the hands of fashion-hound skeletons, broken octopus tentacles walking with holy men, bronco-busting dinosaur riders and princesses and peas. His is a genesis myth caught somewhere between Eden, Oz and the dark side of the moon.

If the old cabinets of curiosity offered a theory of evolution in embryonic form, then Sale's contemporary bell jars of monstrosity give form to the underbelly of Darwin's ideas in their afterlife. Eccentric though they may be, Sale's pieces betray poignant and uncanny truths. The glass-covered circular opening at the center of a small book titled How to Turn Your Ability Into Cash shows a miniature plastic cow cut in half, its blood-red meaty entrails apparent for all to see. Meat may be murder, but it also means cash. Vegetables, anyone? The glassy cupola on the cover of Christian Church Art Through the Ages shows two small pink plastic figures, presumably Christ walking with the tip of a tentacle, in a field of oil wells. Our eyes lead us through a portal of discovery to where we float within a landscape of hypocrisy and fun.

With respect to medium and materials, all of Sale's pieces qualify as "assemblages": works of sculpture made from the careful amassing and placement of disparate and found objects. Similar to the assemblages of Kienholz and the "combines" of Rauschenberg, Sale juxtaposes objects according to a composition based on odd rhythm and uncanny form. While weird beyond expectation, his work is appealing to the eyes. Distinct from Kienholz and Rauschenberg, Sale's pieces relate more directly his personal brand of narrative high jinks based on norms gone awry.

As preacher and storyteller, Sale is equal parts impresario and mountebank. He is smarter and more honest than Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry but as suave and debonair as Burt Lancaster's. Like Gantry, Sale uses charisma to sell his wares, making hobby-shop scenes that are at once cute and twisted, perky yet intellectually explosive. In the cutout space at the center of the small sky-blue suitcase of "Temple Grandin's First Day of School," one's eyes follow space in recession, back to the core of the accordion-like black interior of the box, presumably crafted from an old camera casing. There one finds a toy horse trailer carrying a miniature cow that bucks with fear. Here Sale posits in three-dimensional narrative form Grandin's hypothetical foray into her life as a full-blown thinker and accidental activist for animal rights. As writer, designer of livestock handling facilities and professor of animal science (as well as patient of autism), Grandin becomes the stuff of jest.

True to the charismatic services of Gantry, Sale performs "weddings, funerals and other events," but all under the pseudonym and alter ego of Pinky Diablo. Dressed to the satiric nines in a white suit, pink shoes and pink tie, Diablo is Liberace recast for the golden age of Prada. His 6-by-8 pink trailer sat outside the gallery on opening night. It is a nomadic exhibition space that promises "Texas-shaped flapjacks, a singing grubworm, palm-sized cattle and a few more surprises." In the hands of Diablo, the science of the Renaissance Wunderkammer becomes stuff for Ripley's Believe It or Not--a white-trash spectacle roving between city and trailer park. In keeping, though, with the image of the proverbial Renaissance man, Sale is an artist of many marvels and skills, a performer as well as sculptor of assemblage. And he speaks Flemish to boot.

That he is a man of many splendors--a skilled artist as well as clever comedian--is evident in the wry humor of his work. The "Cause of War" shows a baboon and seal about to skirmish over the last piece of pie sitting atop a box in a small plastic-covered case. In "Which Head Makes Me Look Fatter," a skeleton with a bloody head in each hand stumbles forth in an old rusted-out and emptied Victorian clock box. Offering a rare instance in which the title bears as much meaning as the object, the works offer quick-witted language in three-dimensional form. Each holds a succinct and total cosmos unto itself. Trained first in art history and then in fine arts, Sale's knowledge of artful comedy through the ages is broad. Even beyond his own perverse signature of parody, evident in his pieces are the ribald influences of humorists past, from the wonder and irony of Brueghel and Hogarth to the dadaist satires of Hannah Hoch and Max Ernst to the surrealist fantasy of Joseph Cornell.

The work showing in Bedtime Stories and Other Night Terrors will elicit plenty of belly laughs. Though varying in size, with books being the smallest in scale at 4 inches by 8 inches, the pieces are all cause for giggling pause.