AFTER DISMOUNTING Greta Bank’s elaborate thrones for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In a prodigious steampunk exhibit, the collective works in "Victoria's Wonderama" compound the motifs and fascinations of the 19th century with a wealth of fresh and fantastic interpretations, updating the genre without limiting its scope to orthodoxies.
For as visceral the works in "Wonderama" are, its visitors are expected to view them from cordoned-off sections at the edges of rooms. It's an understandable byproduct of the stuffy, conservative ideals of Victorianism, where most expressions were of the staid, internal sort anyway. Yet as tiresome and limiting as it felt at first, it soon gave way to smoldering, almost yearning, sensations and internal impressions. More than I might in a typical gallery, I wanted to get my hands on this stuff, to play with it. Maybe Victorians knew what they were doing after all.
Stoked though my viscera were, the distance approach offered a number of opportunities for pondering (and if there's one thing Victorians were good at, it's pondering). Victoria's tour begins in the mansion's reception room, where Greta Bank has installed a Baroque shrine to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in antique giltwood chairs and panels of arcane iconography. Though forced to employ restraint, I badly wanted to properly inspect the detail of Bank's illustrations — which address such anachronistic themes as Abu Ghraib, genetic testing, and bird flu.
David Twiss cloaks the dining room table in a massive hand-cut lace, within which he has rendered insectile forms and haunting human portraits. Speaking to the Victorian obsession with the collection and display of insects, the piece quickly had me envisioning Twiss's artistic process, laboring over his materials like a tarantula. Down the hall, Brunswick artist and steampunk devotee Christian Matzke has fashioned a registry of thematically faithful symbols, envisioning the room through the prism of the novels of H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, and Bram Stoker. An absinthe-powered brass arm is at the room's center, summoning the spirit's history both in fin-de-siecle literature and warfare.
Lying on the sofa in the parlor, Mike Libby's "sootman" might be the most immediately arresting image of the show. Visually and textually connecting the history of the Industrial Revolution and the much-romanticized vocation of the chimney sweep to the brutal realities of illness, poor working conditions, and "soot wart," his room is especially compelling for its ability to work against and dispel certain Disneyfied, pop-culture notions. For the room's corollary element, "Insect Lab," Libby has placed mechanized crabs and insects under glass, evoking the literary invention of the robot and its roots in the cultural anxieties of the laborers of the 1920s.
Stephen Burt manages to alter the upstairs bedroom with one dramatic conceit, transforming its mood from containment to imaginative shadow play. In the hallway, Scott Peterman gets a little uncanny with lenticular photography, casting a funhouse effect over the balcony, which fits the exhibit's tone of wit and creepiness. Tom Couture decorates the sitting room with spectral and fictional scenes as played by high-profile Portland personalities, impeccably cast and entirely convincing. Brendan Ferri's "perpetual motion machine" in the Turkish Smoking Room was conceptually interesting but visually inert, the biggest victim of the mansion's prohibition on close inspection.