The Truth Is Down There
Getting to the bottom of Mel’s Hole at the Grand Central Art Center
Art Bell’s syndicated late-night radio show, Coast to Coast AM, was like what would happen if you took one of the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files and gave him a microphone, four hours of airtime to kill seven nights a week, and a bunch of phone lines jammed with callers who were even kookier than he was. Back in the pre-Internet dark ages, dear children, we insomniacs couldn’t just while away our long, lonesome midnights Flickring and LiveJournaling and YouTubing until we finally passed out. But when the bars were closed and all the TV stations had shut down for the night, Art Bell and friends were always there, waiting to tell you about how Bigfoot was actually an escaped laboratory experiment from Area 51.
While there were plenty of lost souls who took the show way too seriously, it was also pure catnip to a certain kind of artsy, wiseguy weirdo—parishioners of the Church of the Subgenius, punks with Charles Manson tattoos, Frank Zappa fans, etc. And now that Bell is semi-retired, dozens of art-world anti-heroes (Jeffrey Vallance, Gary Panter, Jim Shaw and many more) have gathered in Santa Ana to pay semi-ironic tribute to the radio pioneer who never met a paranoid shut-in he didn’t like.
The Grand Central Art Center’s “Aspects of Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace” (curated by LA Weekly art critic Doug Harvey) takes one of the most famous stories from Bell’s show as its inspiration. In 1997, a man calling himself Mel Waters phoned in to Bell’s show, claiming he had discovered a mysterious hole on his Washington property, a hole of seemingly infinite depths that was capable of bringing dead animals back to life. As the years passed, Waters called occasionally to add more astonishing details to his story, until he suddenly vanished from the airwaves in 2002, leaving a nation of night owls aching to learn more. As unlikely as it all sounds, there have been actual news stories about wannabe Fox Mulders getting lost in the Washington woods, their flashlights pointed down at the dirt as they wandered around in restless circles, wanting to believe.
The artists in this show each plumb the depths of Mel’s Hole in their own way, sometimes just celebrating the sheer oddness of the whole idea, sometimes offering more thoughtful commentary on America’s obsession with conspiracies and the paranormal.
This is a show that throws so much interesting stuff at you that it quickly becomes exhausting. Pieces that would be showstoppers in other exhibits can struggle to get noticed in this freak show. As you enter, you find yourself already in the depths of the hole, as a stuffed, fluffy seal peers down at you from a large gap in the ceiling. (Please don’t even ask about the seal. We still have a lot of weird to cover, here.)
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When your brain is just too overwhelmed to take in Vallance’s drawing explaining how aliens evolved from dinosaurs, you know you’re suffering from a serious fascination overload. As brilliant as Vallance is, how can he hope to wrest your eyeballs away from Gregg Gibbs’ Scale Model of the R. Biggs Commemorative Privy, a wonderfully ghastly thing that looks like a demented folk-art diorama somebody would find in a retired carny worker’s bedroom after he died? How can Charles Schneider’s elegantly peculiar Fancy Space Hole really suck you in amid such enticements as Everything You Know Is Wrong, a short film by the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe? The film serves as a surreal, deadly accurate parody of Bell’s show . . . which is a particularly neat trick, considering they made it years before Bell’s show was on the air.
You find yourself feeling weirdly grateful for such relatively straightforward works as Michael C. McMillen’s photo Mel’s Hole 1 Mile, depicting a roadside sign that says just that. It makes a refreshing break from beautiful but baffling fare such as Marnie Weber’s Mel’s Hole, a Love Story, a room-sized installation featuring a romance between one mannequin dressed as a sheep and another dressed as a kind of bondage seal. (Seriously—I already told you not to ask about the seals.)
“Aspects of Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace” at the Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Call for hours. Through Oct. 19.