NEW YORK -- Anyone stopping in for a game of pool and a Rolling Rock at the Hudson Grill in SoHo here is greeted by an ET-like figure waving from the window.
Three feet tall, formed of latex over cotton, he (she?) is the work of John Sheldon, a sometime waiter and cook in New York, who says he has been fascinated by unidentified flying objects since he had a UFO "sighting" on a fishing trip with his father in the 1950s. In obscurity, he has made ET sculptures for more than a decade.
"You think you're the only one," Sheldon, 56, said, "but I'm finding out there's a whole network of people doing this."
The little gray creatures with big eyes just keep advancing.
Invaders from Mars and elsewhere, which are stalking back into movie houses and onto television screens this fall, are also infiltrating cultural territory where they have rarely been seen before: art, fashion and music.
No fewer than three downtown exhibition spaces are showing art with UFO and alien-abduction themes. At the opening last week of a show at Hudson Grill, 350 Hudson Street, near King Street, a club kid with a painted silver face mingled with scruffily bearded artists, while upstairs flying-saucer poetry was recited, and flying-saucer rock rang out. Strumming a guitar, Aloid (real name: Al Cohen), sang plaintively of an abduction, "Cruising down the L-I-E, I saw a light chasing me."
Today flying-saucer fascination seems bigger than ever. Interviews with psychologists, historians and artists suggest a variety of reasons: apprehension over the millennium, distrust of government and traditional information sources, New Age spiritual yearnings and anxieties about sexuality in the risk-averse 1990s.
Though true believers would disagree, it is probably safe to say that the deluge of UFO images tells us less about alien beings than about ourselves.
"The Judeo-Christian world view, and beliefs that people grew up with, in many cases have failed them and no longer answer the great existential questions," said Barry Beyerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has studied reports of UFO encounters. "People are looking for answers from different channels. UFOs are a marriage of high-tech and a strong religious desire to believe."
Earlier on the day the Hudson Grill show opened, Andre Van Pier showed his UFO-inspired fashion collection, including three-feet-wide "Mothership" hats for women and men's silvery jeans and jackets. "The futuristic look is strong now; its acceptance is major among buyers and retailers," Van Pier declared. A costume designer for movies and rock stars, he took credit for accessorizing the slime-ball aliens in "Independence Day" with silver neck rings, bracelets and kneepads.
Much of the UFO art in galleries has the visceral intensity and unschooled technique of work that goes by the name Outsider Art. Some artists claim firsthand encounters with UFOs, and they bring to their flat compositions and simple palettes a visionary intensity.
"I'm treating it with as much respect as I can," said Phil Demise Smith, who assembled the Hudson Grill show, "Spatial Relations: the UFO Experience" (through Sept. 30). "For me, it's a very strong metaphor for lots of things I know to be true: the idea of something greater than ourselves, whether God or Allah or Buddha. There's a human need for this kind of belief."
At the American Primitive Gallery in SoHo, where an exhibition of UFO-theme art by 18 individuals opens Thursday, there are wild and colorful drawings of saucer propulsion systems, annotated in Romanian, by Ionel Talpazon, who thinks they will be of more interest to future scientists than art collectors.
Talpazon, 41, traces his interest in UFOs to an encounter with a "blue energy" that passed over him one night as a boy in rural Romania. After coming to New York in the 1980s, he sold his art on the sidewalk. Arne Anton, the owner of American Primitive, at 594 Broadway (Houston Street), discovered Talpazon when he wrote an SOS to a folk-art newsletter, saying he was soon to lose his apartment.
Anton visited him on 135th Street in Harlem and found a one-room studio covered floor to ceiling with UFO pictures. The single table overflowed with plaster saucers, like children's tops, which Talpazon made in the bathtub. "I immediately bought a picture for $250 so he could pay the rent," the gallery owner said.
When Anton, a longtime dealer in work by self-taught artists, announced he intended to mount a show of UFO work this year, he was overwhelmed by the response. "The artwork is just coming out of the woodwork," he said. "It strikes a chord."
He has assembled work by a former boxer from California, a man from Washington State who builds moon architecture out of colored hair curlers and a graduate of the Harvard School of Architecture, Paul Lafolley, who maintains that he has metal implants in his brain, and whose paintings, which have been seen in well-known galleries, are priced at $25,000.
Talpazon, standing this week before a gallery wall that recreates some of his apartment's clutter, said that he tried to tell people as a boy about his close encounter, but they called him crazy. "I don't talk to nobody after that," he said. "In my heart and my brain I keep it until I can talk about it."
This seems the case with a number of artists working the UFO vein: through visual images, they can communicate mysterious experiences that, if they described them in words, would invite ridicule.
At Wares for Art, 281 Avenue of the Americas at Bleecker Street, Phil Smith, who put together the Hudson Grill show, has assembled an intimate show of paintings and drawings by that subculture of people claiming to be alien "abductees." There are works by a mother and six children from Wisconsin who all say they were snatched up by UFOs. Another is by a man whose mother is the subject of the book "Witnessed" by Budd Hopkins, who is sometimes called the father of the abduction movement.
At American Primitive, there are eerie narrative paintings by Chuck Rak, an artist who was on a canoe trip in the 1970s, when he and three friends experienced what is known as "the Allagash abduction."
David Huggins, another self-described abductee, paints graphic and disturbing images from a lifetime of supposed encounters, including babies fathered on alien mothers. The women have the bodies of Playboy centerfolds and the familiar gray alien heads with sloe eyes.
As these shows underline, the iconography of abduction is as codified as the imagery of Christian saints in the Middle Ages. In recent accounts in a flood of books, the details of which are often "recovered" through hypnosis, abductees describe having been stripped naked and violated sexually by cold instruments, in the name of some cross-species eugenics program.
The voyeurism of the stories and some artwork is akin to what the historian Richard Hofstadter, in his famous study "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," called "Protestant pornography." Protestant conspiracy theorists, Hofstadter noted, often depicted outsiders -- Freemasons, Roman Catholic clergymen -- as secretly engaging in immoral fornication, which they then described in titillating detail.
Joe Nickell, a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which challenges claims of the paranormal, said that Americans in the 90s "are apprehensive about our sexuality, whether it's fear of rape or incest."
He added: "What do we tend to do with fears? They come out in nightmares and dreams and hypnosis, just the places where the aliens thrive."
And increasingly, the dreams and visions leap to life in popular culture.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times
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