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On a table in the middle of Andy Krieger's workshop is a turquoise L-shaped box decorated with images of King Kong and the Empire State Building. It looks like an old-fashioned Bally arcade game. A group of 2-inch cardboard cutout island natives, standing on the box's base, raise their arms up to two wooden doors painted on the front. Krieger pulls a knob and the doors swing open. A small hidden motor buzzes noisily and vibrates the base, making the tiny natives dance and scatter as the mighty Kong advances on them. There's a comic, giddy thrill in watching the little figures spastically trying to escape the big ape, but they're not the only ones in this studio who are on the move.
A carpenter by profession, Krieger built the work room in the backyard of his Grosse Pointe Farms home. Inside, sharing space with the saws, clamps, paint tubes and wood scraps, the small warm studio is full of faces. Next to the Kong toy is a tall action figure called "Big Andy" that Krieger made out of plastic modeling clay and beer bottle caps; it looks like a cross between a rec room bar novelty and a Thunderbirds marionette. A small robot with light-up eyes adorns the light switch. Wobbling gently near the edge of the table is a chunk of a tree branch that Krieger has attached to a rusty spring and decorated with a beautiful rendering of his wife to create a sort of proto-bobble head. A larger log nearby has a face penciled directly onto an oval of exposed wood cut out of its bark. More faces stare back from paintings on the walls.
Krieger compares himself to Gepetto, toiling in his workshop and literally making friends for himself. But he's also building a world that they and he can inhabit, a world both demon-haunted and nostalgic. Somewhere along the line, a chunk of Krieger's life went missing and now he's employing all his creative skills to fill the gap.
Krieger, 41, quiet and unassuming, had been away from the local art scene — away from art, really — for some time. He graduated from Cass Tech high school, attended the Cleveland Institute of Art for two and a half years before dropping out, and exhibited at the old Willis Gallery near Wayne State in the early '90s. He got work doing custom carpentry ("a pain in the ass"), had two kids, and at some point, just got "bogged down and quit" making art. Recently he was asked to join a softball team made up of area artists and balked at the invite, "sheepish," he says, to call himself an artist anymore.
"I was in a shitty place a year ago," Krieger admits, but a few things have called him back to being, as he prefers to call himself, a "maker of things." He credits his young son's need for constant entertainment with igniting in him an interest in creating toys and gadgets. The recent deaths of acquaintances convinced him there was no time to waste, and opportunities to show at the Motor City Brewing Works and the Bohemian National Home this year helped motivate him too, the way the confidence of friends and hard deadlines will.
In the past year he's had an amazing burst of productivity, making several elaborate multimedia works. Bringing together his considerable talents for woodworking, drawing, painting and carving, Krieger builds dramatic dioramas and panoramic paintings with widescreen-like dimensions. The intimacy of the dioramas draws the viewer in, while carved and cutout characters on metal rods burst off the "screen" of his larger paintings. It's an attempt to give his work some of the eye-grabbing and attention-holding power of cinema and rock shows, to keep the viewer from blowing through an exhibit too quickly. He's even painted little tableaus on the insides of unfolded Chinese take-out boxes. The environments in these scenes somehow feel both alien and familiar. In any case, entering them is irresistible.
Many of these scenes are heavy with a foreboding sense of tension, fear and loss. Printed at the top of the announcement for Krieger's upcoming show is the famous quote from Night of the Living Dead, "They're coming to get you, Barbara." There are no zombies, as such, in Krieger's pieces (not yet at least), but something haunts his art work and often pursues the characters in it. Sometimes this dread takes the form of huge, ghostly winged heads with dull expressions that float heavily just above the landscape. More unnerving are the scenes where the menace is invisible, and the protagonists seemingly flee from nothing; a kid riding out of a dark wood on his BMX bike, a man gunning his pickup truck under ominous clouds, a lone cowboy racing his horse toward the viewer, aiming his rifle over his shoulder at the empty desert. A hand-written caption under one diorama reads, "Storms brewing in the west/Ghosts from my past bearing down on me/Looking westward."
But if Krieger uses his art to examine his anxieties he also uses it to take back lost time, rewrite his own history, and linger over the details of his past. His work can have the warm nostalgic glow of memory, even when the faces in the pictures are those of strangers whose photos he's found on the Internet. Through characters in his art Krieger does things he didn't or couldn't otherwise — popping wheelies, attending Kiss concerts, doing backflips. It's good to think that maybe the ghost that pursues Krieger is the artistic spirit itself, not to chase him down but to keep pushing him forward.
His carpentry job is more workaday now, and strictly for the paycheck. He wants to be "an artist for real," he says, and saves his creativity for himself. On the wall in a corner of the studio is another shallow box with doors on the front. Painted on them is a man ripping apart his shirt to reveal Superman's iconic "S" logo. Krieger opens the doors to reveal an incomplete copy of Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss," a strangely tender image to be hiding under the breast of the Man of Steel. Krieger talks about his frustration trying to copy the master's work, of how much more he has to learn, how far he has yet to go. The thing is to keep moving.
A solo exhibition of Andy Krieger's art opens at 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 12, and runs through Oct. 1, at Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; www.jeromium.com.
Sean Bieri is design director for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.