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Trashy Theater

Paul Zaloom, a familiar face from TV's Beakman's World, zooms in on Planet Earth. logo

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.

Yet while all these objects serve their time as visual puns and punch lines, it's typically but for a moment before Zaloom races on to his next flight of fancy, which, quite often, are those velvet paintings which zing so much like the rest of the show. The overall result is a wonderful soup of American kitsch - wonderful enough that Zaloom's opting for narrative ironically proves unnecessary. A black velvet painting of a Smurf in the American countryside, coyly watching a trout leap from polluted waters, does seem to say it all about our culture.

Unfortunately for Zaloom, such refreshing political theater arrives right in the middle of an unfriendly artistic climate in which the National Endowment for the Arts is making grants to individual artists more difficult than ever to receive.

This dilemma is not just felt on the federal level. When Zaloom recently applied to the California State Council for a touring subsidy, he found the hoops they asked him to jump through to be outrageous at best. Not only did they ask him to fill out an application over 500 pages long and at a cost of $300, but they also required a full financial disclosure to a panel of presenters with whom Zaloom would later have to negotiate his artist's fee.

Speaking of which, what might Zaloom expect to gain financially after all this effort? Not a dime. The presenters themselves are paid for presenting Zaloom's work, so when Zaloom asked a few of the presenters whether they thought there was anything strange about the process itself, the presenters mostly muttered about "accountability". "They're running scared of the right wing," Zaloom says. "You've got lunatics running the asylum - everyone from Guiliani to [Indiana Representative] Dan Burton. These days any crank with a little complaint can shut down an arts organization."

By de-legitimizing the idea of public funding for the arts, Zaloom feels that governments can effectively insulate themselves from criticism, thereby letting cultural institutions take the hit. Coupled with an era in which a single, pro-autocracy Mayor can threaten the funding of an entire museum based on his dislike of one exhibit - consider last year's "Sensation" at The Brooklyn Museum - it's no wonder that institutions rarely want to take any kind of artistic risk.

Yet Zaloom isn't daunted by contemporary hurdles. He's determined to go on making his work, with or without government funding. He's already planning two new shows to take on tour, one for the kids and one for the adults.

Such is his enduring appeal that when National Public Radio opined that Zaloom had a cult following, images of people sitting in their kitchens making their egg cartons talk to their milk jugs danced through my head. Thinking of this, I asked Zaloom what he would say to those "cultists." "Be nude at all times," Zaloom replied. What the visual pun is on that we can't be too sure - maybe we should use our imagination.

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