A garden gnome stands on a pedestal. His stout body is painted gold. He is decapitated, and his severed head lies next to his feet. But rather than a bloody stump, his rubbly neck twinkles like pyrite. Instead of a face contorted with pain and horror, he smiles. Don't worry, says the gnome. Beheadings are perfectly normal here.
When you enter Mendelson Gallery, "Gnome" is the first sight, and it sets the tone for the entire exhibition. Fabled, by Thommy Conroy, presents artwork of all shapes, sizes and media, but they all share a bright eeriness. Instead of gothic brooding, Conroy's work looks as cheery as an old Lucky Strike ad. His oil paintings have an acrylic lightness, like a Norman Rockwell painting on ecstasy.
In "Oracle," a housewife gazes at what appears to be a rocky cliff. She stares with such intensity that her eye-beams melt the rock. But again, the woman looks prim and comfy. Even the rock looks prim and comfy. Conroy's other women flaunt similarly domestic smiles and fashion, as in his "Fire," "Earth" and "Wind" trio. Yet streaks of paint emanate from their bodies, the way comic books indicate rapid movement. Something is afoot in these portraits — a secret plot, a haunting agenda. We have no idea what that story is, and our ignorance is as unsettling as a guillotined wood sprite.
What's astonishing is that Conroy is only 31 years old. His vintage sensibility smacks of John Waters and David Lynch, Baby Boomers who still skewer Levittown life, and Conroy echoes their Kodachrome aesthetic. Perhaps the creepiest canvas is "The Cabin in the Woods," which shows a sleigh full of people, a stagecoach full of people and Santa Claus, all hanging out in a forest clearing. There is no explanation for this jamboree, and their faces are blankly impressionistic. The old-fashioned icons look out of place, even nefarious. Something is wrong, but we can't tell what.
The show has its fair share of gnomes and magical realism, and despite their subversive undertones, many works are ripe for mainstream collectors. In this critic's estimation, Conroy's most enjoyable work is also his simplest: "Mushrooms" are six small watercolors of fungi. Each is painted with the effortless delicacy of Zen calligraphy. They look innocent enough. Then you read the painted caption: Amanita pantherina.