In Nancy Tobin's new installation, an archipelago assembled from wobbly towers of thrift-store flotsam at once defines and obscures the space. Colored light bounces off pool floaties and Barbie parts. Viewers ricochet off art as they chart their course from one assemblage island to the next. Be forewarned: You may get glitter on your shoes. When I toured the installation in early evening, candy-colored light beams shot through parachute silk and pampas grass, evoking the inside of a pinball machine. The circuitous floor plan was vaguely reminiscent of an alternative-universe IKEA. The amplified sound of dripping water filled the air.
Tobin, who owns the Arcata boutique Vintage Avenger, studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. She has been making elaborate works of installation art for years — even though space limitations have meant that most of these projects, staged in Tobin's home, inaccessible to the public. The artist jumped at the chance to exhibit in a vacant commercial space at 650 Sixth St. in Arcata. "It was incredibly exciting to finally be able to take over a larger space," she said, "like having a conversation after a long silence."
The opening statement in that conversation is some monologue. The artist's storytelling endeavor turns gallery space into a discursive landscape that's literally stacked with environmental parables. Hundreds of individual object units occupy the space; scale ranges from the substantial to the miniscule. A kitsch picture of a waterfall glows like an icon in a reliquary. Tropical fish swim laps within the confines of a laptop screen. Stalactites made from dyed cotton candy cones bristle by the hundreds from overhead.
A herd of plastic dinosaurs appears to scale a chain-link emergency ladder en masse and a thrift-shop Victorian sofa cantilevered partway off the ground supports a foamy column of what looks like whipped cream, replete with candy sprinkles. A plastic Wise Man, formerly part of a king-sized Nativity set intended to illuminate suburban front yards, has come to rest at a precarious angle atop this multi-stage confection. Like many of the objects in this environment, he glows from within, radiant with proximity to the divine — or possibly just irradiated. A mammoth nose sculpted out of foam reclines surrealistically in a camp cot, dreaming of floods; above the nose, inflatable orange armbands suspended in what looks like a thought bubble rotate gently in midair.
Tobin describes her installation as "a surreal take on climate change." The space she designed models a colorful, disunited state where everything appears on the verge of collapse. Each tableau generates the impression that an established order is giving way to new forms of disintegrative chaos. This is the baseline condition from which the assemblages proceed. Populations and collections multiply, sometimes uncontrollably. Every life form is out for itself. The sound of dripping water echoes through the space. The scenarios assembled here explore existential questions, Tobin said: "Who's going to survive? Are humans going to exterminate all other forms of life or will the plants crowd out the humans in the end?"
Tobin sources her materials from thrift shops, yard sales and scrapyards. Collecting is the essence of her method. The forms of accumulation that become possible in a world of material goods characterized by cheap mass-produced plenty and planned obsolescence are both an artmaking strategy and a recurrent theme. Tobin described the gathering as a natural extension of the purchasing she does for Vintage Avenger, saying it "validates my shopping."
Everything here is familiar but denatured, so that perusing this installation is like running into old acquaintances in novel, sometimes compromising situations — you've seen the yard-long illuminated plastic camel from the outdoor Nativity scene before, but not like this.
Some of the fun to be had here is founded in a more sophisticated version of a familiar thrift shop epiphany: the piquant realization, familiar to "pickers," that the nostalgic charge of these slightly antique objects is not unique, but shared.
Nancy Tobin's installation Domestic Disturbance: A Surreal Climate Change Survival Experiential will be on view Dec. 4-9 from 6 to 9 p.m. at 650 Sixth St., Arcata. A closing reception will be held on Friday, Dec. 8 during Arts! Arcata.