In a culture obsessed with consuming, trash has become the Antichrist. Still, whether we like it or not, we all have a relationship with trash. Some of us recycle compulsively, some of us drain our trash into city drinking supplies, some of us talk a lot of trash, almost all of us try to deal with trash as little as possible, and there are the saintly few among us who actually turn trash into art.
Paul Zaloom is one of those talented few. In Velvetville, his latest solo show running at P.S. 122 through January 23, the Obie and Bessie Award-winning Zaloom - perhaps best known as Beakman on the CBS show Beakman's World - enters a frenetic nightmare in which no matter how hard he tries, he can't escape his own complicity in the evils of society.
"Velvetville represents the oblivious place where you have no responsibility. In fact, Velvetville doesn't exist," says Zaloom. What does exist is a combination of Zaloom's signature "junk puppetry" and low-tech live-action animation with a series of specially-commissioned black velvet paintings. Known variously around the world as "cantastoria" (Italy), "wayang beber" (Indonesia), "bankelsang" (Germany) and "etoki" (Japan), the paintings are a kind of "picture performance" whose origins date back to ancient India about 2,000 years ago.
Zaloom is also stretching the rest of his artistic muscles while putting his stamp on an ancient form. Velvetville represents Zaloom's first attempt at a show with a continuous throughline; his previous works have all typically been a series of vignettes. Either way, Zaloom's world is that of a three-ring circus, offering incisive political satire through a series of ingenious visual puns. Possessed of a non-stop energy reminiscent of an excited child rumaging about for his favorite toy, Zaloom takes such obvious joy in his work that one can easily wind up lost in his uncompromising vision.
Dressed in mismatched pajamas and a goofy nightcap, perhaps Zaloom's most valuable artistic attribute is his reliance on the audience's imagination. His genius lies in turning the mundane material objects of our everyday lives into larger representations of the life-altering issues and events that surround us.
So much so, in fact, that at the end of the show the stage is littered with a collection of found objects and other rubbish, all serving as puppets. This includes rubber rats serving as humans (illustrating - what else? - the "rat race"), plus an L.A. city bus serving as a gas mask and a pair of Mickey Mouse ears serving as the "Welcome Center" to hell.