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Having the last laugh

Bill Shafer of Hyaena Gallery shows "3-D Skeeto" by Nicolas Caesar, an acrylic on canvas, which is being displayed with other artwork by Caesar at the Burbank Gallery. (Raul Roa/News-Press)

Works in eclectic Burbank art gallery make one squirm — and wonder.

By Melonie Magruder
Published: Last Updated Saturday, November 14, 2009 12:37 PM PST
A new exhibition, “Nicolas Caesar’s Grindhouse” — at what surely must be the most unique art gallery in Burbank, Hyaena — is billed as “a Celebration of Cinephelia and Trash Comics.”

That’s a pretty accurate description of the whole gallery visit, if you throw in a raft of artworks centered on imagery of death, a selection of CDs you won’t find featured on iTunes’ Top 10, like “Exploding Girls,” Zuni fetish dolls wielding bloody knives and 60-year-old micro-slides of sliced-up “human glands.”

If that sounds too Goth-centric, it’s not. It’s more a sly commentary on underground rebellion and the timeless pleasures afforded by B movies of the 1950s, a keen pursuit of the three-year-old gallery’s proprietor, Bill Shafer.

Shafer, who spent 16 years in the music business before he “got tired of selling stuff I didn’t believe in,” said that he hopes people “get” the backward humor of his challenging collection.

“I love the scavenger mythology of hyaenas,” Shafer said (he uses the archaic spelling in tribute to 18th century woodcuts of the creatures). “They’re always portrayed as being the low end of the food chain. But when they work together in packs, they can take down the strongest beasts.”

The philosophy represents what Shafer is trying to display in the gallery, and he rotates his featured artists every two weeks, anchored by a booming iPod playlist that could be heavy metal or the soundtrack to “Grease.” It’s a funny, rubber-necking visit to a gallery you won’t soon forget.

Among the eclectic offerings are “Memento Mori,” a relic by Kevin Klemm of a skeletal torso embracing a photo of a woman laid out in a coffin; Eric de la Vega’s “Rotella’s Nun,” a portrait of a good sister viciously devouring a fish head; Jim Wirt’s X-rated, glam-rock “Coloringbook Land;” and Eddie Allen’s hilarious images on Lenticular paper — from one angle, you see a 19th-century couple soberly posed for a portrait; from another, the demure wife is strangling her startled husband.

There is lots of religious imagery, echoing the death-specific iconography of Latin American Catholicism. But there is also plenty of opportunity to pick up conversation-changers like sculptures of Chucky look-alikes, and disturbingly riveting objets d’art like a tuberculin syringe in its original box, prescribed by Dr. L.S. Greenlea for a Mrs. Katherine Koste in 1951.

Caesar’s work has a sideshow madness, with acrylics like “Fluffy,” featuring a portrait of anything but that and creepy cartoon anime you wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley. His evil insect hybrids, like much of the other artists’ work on display, are designed to unbalance while they charm you.

Eddie Medrano, a professional clown, visits the gallery often to see what might be new to the walls, and recently picked up a painting by Angus Oblong (creator of the WB animated series, “The Oblongs”).

“Bill’s exhibits are always changing,” Medrano said. “I can always expect to see really unique, off-the-wall stuff. Eccentric, that’s the word. And funny.”

There’s plenty for the literary set also. Malcolm McNeill has produced a 672-piece, limited-edition puzzle titled “Ah Pook is Here,” based on one of William S. Burroughs’ unreleased graphic novels. Ah Pook, the Mayan death god, oversees a post-Dante’s Inferno world of “end of days hysteria.” Next to paintings honoring that ’50s fetish princess, Bettie Page, Bruce Eichelberger’s hand-designed artisan eggs feature beautifully detailed and pornographically twisted ink and glaze portraits on eggshells.

P.h. Fred has a collection of acrylic portraits on “recycled New Orleans tile” of pop culture heroes with bizarre titles. “David Carradine — If You Can’t Be the Poet, Be the Poem,” is one, along with tributes to Michael Jackson, Hervé Villechaize and, weirdly, Jeffrey Dahmer.

And if you haven’t gotten enough train-wreck symbolism yet, there are fingernail clippings of Angel Resendez, Houston’s “Railway Killer;” autographs of serial assassins Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy; and pages from the Bible autographed by Charles Manson.

Shafer’s parents, Sandy and Bob Shafer, were visiting from Massachusetts recently and appeared to be thrillingly bewildered by Bill Shafer’s success.

His artistic sensibility favors the intarsia (a style of wood or stone inlay) images of Jesus he creates — images more conventional than what he finds at Hyaena.

“I did a funny one for Sandy of an old guy sitting in an outhouse,” Bob Shafer said. “Maybe I can do one of a skeleton in an outhouse. That should sell OK here.”