Art books tend to focus on final, fully realized works and self-contained exhibitions, and hardly any get turned into movies. But in the case of Camille Rose Garcia, the order of things gets a bit cattywampus. For Garcia, this time it's the book, The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay, that came first, in an original narrative project begun more than six years ago, influenced by years of work in the visual arenas of the publishing industry and one particularly alarming experience with dentistry.
The paintings in her current solo show at the Corey Helford Gallery actually came last, informed by the animated filming that's been going on for the last two years.
The animation itself is being produced in collaboration with Martin Meunier of Meunier Films, best known for his company's Oscar-winning work in James and the Giant Peach and Coraline and its revolutionary technology in the service of an indie sensibility.
It's been a long journey for Garcia, 47, from youthful Disney dreaming to a top-tier L.A. gallery and the bustling El Segundo studio where her vision becomes a reality.
For her exhibition, “The Wonderful World of Dr. Deekay,” which opened May 12, Garcia executed an impressive suite of large-scale, richly textured, sparkling, goopy, shadowy, neon-inflected, expressive, folkloric paintings. Fever-dream portraits and narrative vignettes, these paintings and drawings depict key scenarios, plot points and protagonists whose more nuanced personas and accoutrements came to life as part of the parallel process of designing the stop-motion animation realm. As a gallery exhibition, it puts the “world” in “Wonderful World.”
Remarkably, rather than being either the starting point or the goal for the publication and animation that are central to this moment in Garcia's career, these paintings grew directly out of the ongoing process of translating the drawings-based world of the book into the object-based universe of stop-motion animation.
The paintings utilize and deftly parlay her schematic literary storylines into the evocative, visceral and disco-lit folklores that fans of her work adore. Take the majestic and seductive figure of La Sirena Fantasma — her whole look and story. We never actually meet her in the book. Instead, she is invoked by a brave and brilliant lobster named Sandoval, once her lover and determined to reunite with her. This is only one of several unresolved plot points in the book that telegraph Garcia's vision for the stop-motion feature to become more than a film. Its snaking, nesting-doll array of places and persons is perhaps better suited to a series format than a feature. Either way, it's going to be epic.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Garcia says. “So I was free to have a lot of crazy ideas. But one thing was that, since it's stop-motion, of course that design and production process is not computer-generated. It needed to include actual, built objects, plus costumes, props, architectural and environmental settings. … I had to figure out the logistics and details of scenes, locations and all the things that took place there. Every single element, every atom of every frame. And the palette, too! I did the book in ink drawings, so we needed a color story as much as everything else.”
And that's exactly how Garcia came to fully develop the look and feel and expanded spaces of what came to be the new paintings. In turn, The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay — the story is complete but the design is coming to fruition now — doubtless will be flavored by the details worked out in the movie and painting studios. As it says early on in the storybook, “If you started over backwards you could sometimes get to a place before you left.”
Viewers of “The Wonderful World of Dr. Deekay” will get up close on dozens of illustrations, puppets, the first clips from the stop-motion film and an interior mural based on the old Wonderful World of Disney aesthetic.
“It'll basically be a map of the whole known universe,” Garcia says, as it is both mapped and hinted at in the book. This includes a vast warehouse of shrink-rayed parts of the earth and sky; all the planet's natural inhabitants; a sprawling Escher-esque hulk of a hospital on a seaside cliff; the hospital's monstrous patient/prisoners; and its surreal labyrinth of hallways, cellars, false doors and wormholes, populated by hybrid creatures of air and ocean, both thralls and rebels, giant crickets and a feral albatross. “It doesn't have to make sense,” Garcia says, “not in the same way our world does.”
Fairy tales, especially the super-dark Brothers Grimm versions, are intended to prepare children and adolescents for the archetypal, inevitable traumas of adult life — crime, injustice, heartbreak, death, lies — and also to encourage rewardable behaviors such as forgiveness, patience, honesty and empathy. “But no one,” Garcia laughs, “prepares you for the horror of, say, a violently bungled dental surgery and the prolonged quasi-psychosis of an atypical drug reaction.”
That's the real-life and incredibly personal scenario at the root, so to speak, of the entire book/canvas/animation continuum. “I'd call it obfuscated autobiography,” Garcia says. “It is a story of terrible dentistry. I feared my whole life and finally what happened was the worst thing that could happen, worse than my worst nightmare.”
She'd been afraid of the dentist her whole life, and suffered from hard-to-fix periodontal issues. So right after her illustrated edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland became a New York Times best-seller in 2010, she took her money and called a specialist, determined to get her issues sorted out for good.
One week and 11 root canals later, when it was time for gum surgery, things went off the rails. She remembers saying “I'm not OK,” as her eyes split between two focal planes and things in general split into multiple dimensions. She was having a bad drug reaction, a temporary and rather psychedelic cognitive break. “I've always had this fear. Fear of being tampered with, fear of the modern world?…?.”
It's a medical phobia, and a wariness of the rampant over-reliance on pills and prescription dysfunction in our medical system. When this happened to her, Garcia says, “I saw through the veil.” This book is the story of what she saw. The drawings are what it looked like, and in a way, the paintings are how it felt to be there.
Since Garcia started with the book, we will, too, with a brief spoiler-free summary of the premise. The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay opens on an operating room scene, in which our young hero awakes to find himself recovering from a mysterious surgical procedure and being ministered to by a team of medics led by a doctor with a giant molar for a head. Things only get weirder from there. It turns out the kid was there to have every part of his body systematically replaced with random objects/anatomical anomalies such as whisks and lobster claws, in order to be better suited for something called the “Project for a Future Tomorrow.” By page 10 it's already clear that this is not going to go well for our boy Alex, as “a human-sized centipede with the head of a baby giggled from somewhere near the iron lung machine.”
One major element of both the plot and the architecture of the story is called a Cabinet of Faces, which is just what it sounds like. It's sort of like that part of Game of Thrones where we see arrayed the faces of those whose identities are waiting to be assumed by others. But it's also nothing like that. Its introduction is the scene in which we learn that Alex's face, which had been removed and replaced with, well, something less desirable, has its own sentient, separate storyline. The vault where this cabinet is hidden is just one wing of the innumerable sprawls of the hospital, and its own rewarding challenge to design and build for the animation.
Likewise the Sea Prison, the underwater location in which we learn that the claw that is now Alex's right hand used to have an owner, Sandoval, who misses it almost as much as Alex misses his face. The lobster character has kind of an Inigo Montoya thing going on, involving both a love story and a sort of political activist subplot. He wants his mermaid girlfriend back, but first he has to raise awareness of the sea's plight among us surface dwellers. Well, first he has to get his claw back. Though we don't (yet) meet her in the story, other than in Sandoval's memory, Garcia's operatic painting of this mermaid character, La Sirena Fantasma, is among the most arresting in the gallery.
At a certain point, it is revealed that all the Frankensteinian goings-on at the hospital are being carried out by Dr. Deekay on the orders of something called the Party of Deconstruction, under the aegis of the Project for a Future Tomorrow. It's a thinly veiled political allegory for our times, a fascist conspiracy explained. It started with the complete outlawing of all cats, then with taking all the children for experiments in anatomical reassignment. It's a little bit Handmaid's Tale and a little bit Willy Wonka.
While it doesn't have anything to do with Trump per se (Garcia has been working on it for six years, remember), the end goal of the Party is to create mass amnesia, thus making the populace pliable and imprintable, and that much easier to control.
This tumult of nature and science, fantasy and fear, control and creativity reflects Garcia's interest in the works of authors such as Roald Dahl, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Franz Kafka — all of whom worked in the allegorical, symbolism-rich world of dystopian fiction, often presented as though for children. “Did you know,” Garcia says, “that Animal Farm was first offered as a fairy tale? It was rejected a few times before Orwell found a publisher.”
Like the antagonists of those novels, the character of the Doctor is, according to Garcia, “a middleman between evil and good.” He's actually pretty terrible, but readers are also introduced to the Collection, which is the Doctor's secret stash of illegal old-world relics, evoking Winston Smith's perilous wistfulness in 1984.
“Flanking the walls of the long hall were an endless collection of glass-doored cabinets,” reads the scene, “and in between there were doorways leading to other rooms filled with even more cabinets, which contained boxes inside of the cabinets and within the boxes there were entire worlds, and they all contained fragile and extinct remnants saved from a disappearing world, saved from futile and senseless destruction ordered by the Party. He loved the place.” These worlds were stored in their boxes by virtue of molecular shrink-rays, in a very Doctor Who, pocket universe kind of way.
One imagines this corridor of tiny worlds as an endless source of imagery and of plots, another reason this book should0x000Areally be a television series, on the order of Fantastic Voyage, with a little of the edge of The Prisoner. The Cavern of Cabinets is a model of the universe, or else perhaps of the human mind, with the look and feel of a false diorama replicating the known world to trick its inhabitants, on the order of retro-futurist sci-fi masterpiece Dark City, in which aliens experiment on humans by transplanting memories and rearranging the city streets each night. “There are a great many doors,” Alex's would-be rescuers admit at one point, “but we can't seem to find an exit.”
These rescuers are the Cats of the Midnight Moon, a band of felines with steely nerves, military-grade strategic thinking, exceptional knitting skills, a knack for burglary and a dedication to leading the resistance to Party rule. This crew is lead by Alex's missing and presumed dead cat Pierre St. Claire, who had scrammed when word of the cat-banning laws came down; he's been plotting revenge and the restoration of natural order ever since. “Well, I'm not dead,” he tells Alex at their first reunion, “and I'm here to put you back together again. … I know where your face is at.”
Garcia was born in 1970 in Los Angeles, where her parents were an activist filmmaker father and a muralist/painter mother. She grew up near Disneyland, but you didn't need that kind of proximity to be influenced by the world of Disney as a child. What was interesting to Garcia was the juxtaposition of the Enchanted Kingdom with the punk scene to which she was equally attracted. All of these cats and hospital denizens portrayed in the drawings, which formed the basis for the stop-motion animations, definitely evince a sensibility born from that Disney/punk rock hybrid.
Animation pioneer Meunier was instantly attracted to the potential for Garcia's project. This stop-motion video is Garcia's first foray into the medium, though she had dreamed of being an animator (specifically a Disney artist) long before attending art school.
“When we first started plotting this out,” Garcia says, “there were questions. Like, 'How big is this world?' 'How big are its rooms, compared to the characters?' In my drawings, there were sketches but there were no straight lines, and they said, 'Well, do you need straight lines?' Of course not! It's not the real world, it doesn't need to make sense!”
Influenced by the phantasmagorical architectural visions of Gaudí and Geiger, Garcia designed organic buildings, feeling that not only the metastasizing hospital but the entire world of the story is alive. Structured as a kind of nesting doll, the hospital is made of an untold number of nesting “cabinets,” rooms within rooms, shrunk-down continents in boxes on shelves. It's like a multiverse half based on string theory, emblematic of the way mixed reality increasingly blurs the boundaries between real and fake. Garcia's challenge was to make it tangible. “Don't worry,” Meunier's team said, “we can build anything you can draw.” Challenge accepted.
The paintings and drawings in the exhibition are accompanied by sculptural objects, which in many cases also functioned as the props, puppets and sets for the animation. There is actually a huge amount of locational description in the book; for example, “a cavernous green emerald hallway draped with moss and twinkling with an almost imperceptible sheen.” Garcia's palette was inspired by the psychedelic qualities of her post-dental hallucinations. She looked for inspiration to iconic colorists such as Peter Max, Yellow Submarine, and all that 1960s psychedelic, fluorescent, candy-store, glitter-bomb goodness.
Meunier explains that not only shape and palette but, as with painting itself, lighting makes a huge difference in the emotional and cognitive impact of imagery. “In computer-generated worlds,” he says, “to re-create the architecture of light is impossible — it's better to light the real thing.” That's one of the main reasons he so enjoys the production process of stop-motion, what he calls the “toy factor,” an economy of scale not unlike a dollhouse coming to life.
“The appeal of miniatures is obvious,” Garcia says. “Tiny real objects evoke a sense of nostalgia, play and the texture of a made-up world.”
The book, like the show, has an open-ended conclusion that telegraphs the infinitely expandable nature of her story. But the fact of it being published at all is also a kind of happy ending for Garcia. Long Gone John, the famous/infamous lowbrow art champion, is putting out books now as Sympathetic Press, and will publish hers this fall. “He said, 'Do whatever you want,'?” Garcia laughs. “It's my world. It's the one I wanted to make.”
Corey Helford Gallery, 571 S. Anderson St., Boyle Heights; (310) 287-2340, coreyhelfordgallery.com. Tue.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; through June 16.