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The Grand Grotesquerie of Gabe Bartalos

The simplest things can also be the scariest. In Abhorrence and Obsession, Gabe Bartalos's new career retrospective at the University Art Museum in Long Beach, he's created a menagerie of the surreal and sinister but what haunted me the most was a trio of stick figures. They're human-sized, swathed in bundles of hair, and somehow, their minimalism makes them unexpectedly menacing, like giant poppets possessed by an ancient, inscrutable spirit.

The stick figures are from Bartalos's upcoming film Saint Bernard. It's the latest project in a 20+ year career that has spanned the schlockiest of b-horror movies (Leprechaun 4: In Space, anyone?) to the loftiest of art films (Matthew Barney's praised/panned Cremaster cycle). There are certainly other FX specialists who've built reputations in the art world but few of his contemporaries can list collaborations with both cult horror director Frank Henelotter and singer Björk on a single resume.

Surprisingly, Abhorrence and Obsession is the first major retrospective of Bartalos's career and for the occasion, museum director Chris Scoates gave the artist extensive access to the gallery space to not simply display his work but create elaborate installations. "The exhibition had begun by Scoates visiting my studio and seeing a lot of pieces on display. That started getting him excited about the possibility of a show," explains Bartalos. Scoates latched onto a police station set from Saint Bernard, still in storage at Bartalos's studio, and the artist re-installed it at the UAM. It resembles a cubicle from some dystopian bureaucracy: an office chair covered in tattered newspaper, endless keys and locks hanging on nails and hooks, a two row assortment of old cordless phones, a dusty tax guide from 1988.

As impressive as the Saint Bernard police station piece is, even it may pale in comparison to the highlight in the next room over: the zombie horse. It's a creation originally from Barney's Cremaster 3. However, when Bartalos created it for Barney, the zombie horse was basically an exterior rubber costume: "the zombie horse only existed when there were actual horses there to put the suits on," Bartalos explains. They couldn't exactly install a stable in the gallery so instead, "we went back to the original molds, got a fiberglass horse form, and re-cosmetically dressed the pieces on," he says. In essence, Bartalos not only recreated the suits, he had to supply his own horse this time too. The result is a nightmarish equine vision of decaying flesh, a ragged mane, and an exposed backbone, rising along the rear. "We made the decision to allow it to try and hold the entire room. It very clearly didn't need anything else," Bartalos says.

You could say Bartalos always had an eye for macabre details. He grew up in Westchester, New York just north of Manhattan, and both his parents were doctors. That meant Bartalos had access to anatomy textbooks and even prothetic body parts. This raises an interesting chicken-and-egg question, one that Bartalos asks himself often: "Did I already have a fascination toward arts that are around the fantasy or darker side, and the surroundings with my parents as a doctor having bits of skull around, a cross-section of a face, you know for a nasal decongestion pharmaceutical item. Did that just play and help throw fire on the furnace of what I was interested in or did that stuff help shape my interest?" he asks, unable to supply a definitive answer, except to say: "maybe if you are lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of stuff, and you already have a predisposition to like something, you can maybe get those trigger points that help inform it and let you expand on it."

For Bartalos, he discovered, early on, that one of his trigger points was in the surreal and fantastical. He was already creating drawings and small sculptures as a teenager but a run-in with a special effects professional opened the proverbial door into his future career. "I had gone to a [horror] convention in New York and they were promoting a film, The Deadly Spawn. Arnold [Gargiulo] was the make-up artist. He was a very nice guy, very approachable, and it turned out he lived two towns away from me." When Bartalos went to work for Gargiulo as an intern, he describes the experience as, "like the beam of light from God coming in." He absorbed all the knowledge he could, learning every aspect of effects craft, from the materials to illustrations to sculpting and beyond.

A few years into his budding career, Bartalos crossed paths with one of his most frequent collaborators: director Frank Henenlotter, best known for the cult horror classic, Basket Case. The two men first worked together on Henenlotter's 1988 Brain Damage and then the 1990 Basket Case 2 sequel. In Hennlotter, Bartalos found a kindred spirit - both were obsessed with the imaginative potential offered in the horror genre but they wanted their creations to inspire people to stare closer at the screen, rather than turning away in terror or disgust. "When people are sitting there, scared out of their wits, covering their eyes, I don't want them to cover their eyes, I want them to see the effect I did!," he laughs. With Henentotter and his films, "instead of covering things in gore and having people turn away, Frank also shared that sentiment. We asked the public to not turn away, but in fact focus on it," he says.

Under other circumstances, Bartalos could have stayed working exclusively on Hollywood films but a chance opportunity in the mid-1990s would have a profound impact on his expansion into the art world. On a visit back home to New York from Los Angeles, Bartalos went to visit a friend - artist and effects professional Keith Edmier - who was in town doing prosthetic design work for Matthew Barney, at the time embarking on the first of what would be his five part Cremaster Cycle. Bartalos became one of Barney's key make-up/effects specialists, not just on the Cremaster films, but also Barney's infamous Drawing Restraint 9, where Barney and his partner, Bjork, carve the flesh off each other's legs in an elaborate tea-room-meets-whale-flensing ceremony. Abhorrence and Obsession includes the severed feet used from the film.

Feet from "Drawing Restraint 9," 2005. A film by Matthew Barney © Matthew Barney.
Feet from "Drawing Restraint 9," 2005. A film by Matthew Barney © Matthew Barney.   

Just as Bartalos and Henentotter shared similar sentiments in the surreal, so did Bartalos and Barney. "We would work very hard, but a lot of times I would get to see my hands-on work being celebrated as a poster or a main photo and Matthew was excited because he has a huge imagination, and now had an outlet through me to help realize these make-up effects," says Bartalos. As he puts it, "as the tide rose with [Barney], we all rose with him, which was really great," and as a result, Bartalos has managed to establish a reputation in both low-grade horror and high art but for him, those distinctions matter very little.

"I give Chris Scoates a lot of credit. He didn't make that distinction either," Bartalos says. When the two men toured Bartalos's studio, the pieces they ultimately selected weren't based on their origin points, only the visual impact. "One might have been a 42nd St. [multiplex] film, the other one was at a Guggenheim; he saw all these things as a unified art form that should be celebrated," Bartalos says. In fact, by moving those pieces into a space as imbued with cultural capital as an art museum, Bartalos feels it nudges the viewer to reconsider work that, in another context, they might have dismissed as shock or schlock. "Putting it on a pedestal, putting warm light on it, putting a label on it, the audience is now manipulated and told it's art, and that gets them to look at it, and then hopefully their own sensibilities go, 'Holy smokes! Look at that sculpture! That's beautiful! That's a piece of art!'"

Want to read more? Check out more of Artbound's most recent articles:

From FX to Fine Art: The Evolution of Special Effects Artists in the Digital Age
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