Puzzle Over Jophen Stein's Surreality Programming at the Box Gallery

Surreality Show
Jophen Stein’s puzzling, disturbing juxtapositions of images appeal to ‘The 5 Deadly Senses’ and beyond

Something mysterious and childlike but difficult to decipher currently resides inside the Box Gallery in Costa Mesa. Curated by Johnny Sampson, “The 5 Deadly Senses: A Jophen Stein Exhibition” is a one-man show that spurns viewer passivity, forcing you to engage if you’re going to get anything out of it. Few of the paintings on display are blatant illustrations of the exhibit’s title, so don’t feel too frustrated if you don’t “get” the paintings right off. Go with the flow of Stein’s images, and the elaborate puzzle boxes will reveal themselves, even if several don’t really kick into your brain until a few days later.

The confusion begins with the connecting image repeated throughout several of the pictures: A candle/birdhouse/lotus/shield thing that defies description—even if you use a lot of forward slashes. Whether it’s in the opening painting announcing the show (Prelude to Overture) or in the later Dalí-esque melting plants and flowers, I had no clue what it meant when I first saw it, and I still don’t.

What I did get—or at least imagine that I did—was a complex series of surreal metaphors, personal and political, that feel like they slipped directly out of Stein’s dreamscape.

In his diptych An Earwig That’s Louder Than Sound, machinery shaped like tubas, ear horns, blank comic-book air balloons and gramophones grind away at one another in a sweet metaphor for the process of hearing or thinking. His imagery—a little bearded man pulling a cart filled with earmuffs for sale, a girl jumping out of a disembodied ear, a black coffin being lowered into a cartographic Earth—suggests that we barely listen, get lost and bury sounds/thoughts before we’ve fully processed them. Equally odd, Tug Life has two sailors, both torsos without lower limbs, showing off their tattoos. The captain has a tattoo on his stomach, the second sheds a tear as the vein in his arm separates from the skin—along with a colorful, coiling mass of arm ink— and becomes an IV for a plant he’s holding.

Sailors also come into play in Cargo Holder, in which a bleary-eyed mariner holds a thin-stemmed liqueur glass and is literally boxed in by the colorful cargo behind him, the pink fleshy ceiling a giant, throbbing, hungover brain. Intermission boasts a small boy in a sailor shirt with his arms spread wide in joy or surrender.

Colonialism is the point of departure in a series of comic pictures featuring Intrepid Explorer archetypes—complete with pith helmets, monocles and muttonchops—alone or interacting with natives. In Popping in With Propositions, a colonialist, his facial hair built of leaves and flowers, pokes out of a jack-in-the-box, his tiny fingers lifting the lid of a Pandora’s box, either letting something out or seeing something that he wants to grab and cram inside. In Grower, a squat, dull-eyed native with a watering can supplies the potential labor, while in Planter, a white man grips the potential commodity in a blue flowerpot. In E.G. Savage Sings How to Fix a Broken Stick, the archetype, arms akimbo, belts out a song, his mouth a giant O. A gold-masked African warrior stands nearby, his phallic spear snapped near the blade, the omnipresent bird feeder/candle hovering in the air at the break.

Stein’s anthropomorphic foxes dressed in green rent-a-maid outfits, utility uniforms and French maid outfits doing menial janitorial jobs would feel right at home in a child’s sinister story book, but the looks on their faces—either staring directly at or dejectedly away from the viewer—says more about beasts of burden than any PETA ad.

The Box Made Promises takes the prize as most discomfiting: A bald-headed child with trees growing out of its eye sockets holds an untwisted wire hanger in its small hands, a cross-section of its head open, revealing a quiet pastoral scene inside. The hanger’s abortion connotations—along with a box in the background labeled “Home Lobotomy” resting on a blood-red dresser—refer us back to the earlier Earwig picture in a visceral Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind way.

I loved the title of the two panels in There Wasn’t a Straight Bone in His Body and wascaptivated by the skull resting nose-deep in jungle foliage, the panel below a curved thigh bone, resting casually against a baby-blanket-blue background. Five small squares of color in the corner suggest a military insignia. Something mirroring the viewer awash in Stein’s images? A political statement about gays in the military? None of the above?

I don’t know, and in the end, it probably doesn’t matter, does it? It obsessed me enough that before I left, I did something I’ve never done before: I handed over my debit card and bought the painting right then and there.

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