Tableaux: An artist cuts and pastes the familiar into fantasy

Whittier artist John Largaespada uses local scenes and people for elaborate digital collages

Whittier artist John Largaespada intricately cuts, pastes, and distorts photos of local scenes and people into grandiose digital collages assembled like mosaics.

The resulting larger-than-life images are part of an exhibit called &#8220Tableaux,” French for a moment that arises suddenly, at the recently opened Lonni Rannallo Fine Art Gallery - sharing space with the eclectic Gallery Atitlan at 609 S. 10th St.

The artist combines elements of his environment with scenes from classical operas, painting and literature. His characters often appear mesmerized, frightened or swept up by unexpected events - emotions that arise from the intersection of reality and fiction.

&#8220I want to meld the ideas from the fine art world and popular art and find a road in between,” he said.

Largaespada's human acquaintances also wind up in his collages, but they don't appear literally, either. He warps images and intensifies colors and shapes to such degrees that friends and relatives often don't recognize themselves.

Treating each snapshot like paint, Largaespada shrinks, filters, tints, heightens, flattens, pumps, rips, blurs, colors, bruises, wrinkles, or otherwise transforms ordinary figures and buildings into alien creatures and worlds. Regardless of the distortion, the pieces nonetheless depict such everyday themes as alienation, distress and humor, and the resulting scenes and characters remain familiar: the Lakewood Cemetery's tombs; the retro bar counter from the Band Box Diner; exposed walls of the former Sudz location, where a truck crashed this summer, causing the walls to crumble; a green patch of Loring Park; and classical columns from the Minneapolis Woman's Club all reveal themselves in Largaespada's work.

&#8220You feel like you know them,” said gallery owner Lonni Rannollo. &#8220All of these have a very personal twist. He's not illustrating what's going on. It has more to do with the psychological.”

Rannollo points to the Band Box collage as evidence. Two guys (based on two men who work at the diner) lean against opposite sides of a counter, critically eyeing patrons (and viewers). The only open seat is next to them, and the point of the piece is the discomfort that comes from knowing whoever walks in next will be seated beside these two creepy characters. &#8220It isn't just a pretty picture, but there's conflict and tension,” Largaespada said. &#8220It becomes a context to contemplate these things and think about how they reflect your life and how they affect the human condition.”

At the computer

Largaespada comes from an artistic family and trained at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the 1980s, but he works days as a dog groomer at Royal Pet Beauty Shop, 3019 Lyndale Ave. S., and composes photo collages nightly in his attic studio. Occasionally, he stays up all night perfecting a piece, and creative ideas often strike him while bowling. The 40-year-old belongs to several leagues and bowls up to six times a week. He got so good last year - averaging 220 - that he was forced to cut back at the lanes because his art suffered.

In earlier years, Largaespada composed collages with Xerox machines, teasing the mechanics for skewed reproductions. He also made ballpoint drawings in which he split open pens, blew out the ink and used the cap like a palette knife. His images appeared on record covers, posters, and T-shirts for local underground bands the Cows, Dutch Oven and the Bastards.

These days, except for shooting photos, he works almost solely on the computer. He creates his richly textured collages using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, programs that allow manipulation of images.

&#8220It's tedious, but if you view each piece as a challenge that you make for yourself and you're honest enough with yourself to keep setting the bar higher, it's rewarding,” he said.

Initially, he used photos clipped from magazines as the basis of his work, but he began taking his own photos in 1996 over frustration from scouring magazines searching for a certain image and not finding it.

&#8220Found material dictates imagery,” he said. &#8220You're limited to what you can find. It's hard to express a subject you want to get into.”

Playing the role

Working with people has the added benefit that the relationship becomes part of the creative process. Discussions with friends very often influence the outcome of Largaespada's work, and he seeks out actors when wanting to convey particular emotions.

Bonnie Kane, his supervisor at Royal Pet, appears in more than half of his works and talks through potential subjects for many others.

&#8220I love to see his interpretation of the work,” Kane said. &#8220I enjoy doing it, and I'm proud to say that I'm in his work. He's a wonderful friend and a great person to work with.”

Local actress Natalies Wass, an understudy in the play &#8220Awesome 80s Prom” now at Hennepin Stages, 824 Hennepin Ave. S., also is a repeat model because she enjoys being part of the creative process.

&#8220When I look at it, I'm trying to get a grip on what I see,” Wass said. &#8220A lot of times, it's about manipulation between people. Characters are dissatisfied with their place in the world and are searching or despondent as they deal with a situation that's out of control.”

Ultimately, Largaespada hopes viewers have equally personal and complex relationships with his pieces.

&#8220There are different reactions to my work,” he said. &#8220Some people think it's weird, but some people see beauty and tension. In some ways, it's a weird thing to be dedicated to, but it's a labor of love.”