The Phantom of the Opera performs tonight on the stage of mass consumption. The flesh-hungry Wolf Man is devouring the Amazon. Medusa’s stony stare turns coral reefs ghostly white, and Frankenstein’s bride sits at her vanity table, primping for the apocalypse.
In Laura and Gary Dumm’s monster mash-up paintings, the ghouls of classic horror movies are out to scare the daylights out of you—and make you laugh. Laura, a painter and graphic artist, and her husband, Gary, who illustrated Harvey Pekar’s famous American Splendor comic books, make large and graphically bold paintings of the freaks of vintage Universal Studio horror films. But in their versions, the hellions are unleashed within scenes of contemporary environmental plagues: climate change, extinction, pollution, deforestation, and various other nightmares.
In the joyously garish composition Old King Coal, a crown of toxin-belching smokestacks sprouts from the head of the monster from Frankenstein. The beast holds a bleeding chunk of coal in one big green hand and a dead, dried-up heart in the other. Look closely and you’ll see that the familiar square-headed monster also sports the blue pinstriped suit of a capitalist A-lister as well as a shiny gold tooth. “We figured we’d make him like a smarty big-businessman,” says Laura.
As in all of the Dumms’ “Here There Be Monsters” paintings, as they sometimes call the series of 20 horror flick–inspired scenes, it’s the monster who has the most to fear. In Scream of the Butterflies, Frankenstein’s bride unintentionally poisons herself with a can of pesticide, which she handles like hair spray, as a swarm of pollinators attempt to flee.
In another darkly humorous scene, the Creature from the Black Lagoon has an inflatable duck lodged around his waist in a sea littered with plastic. “I try to leaven the message with at least some small amount of humor,” says Gary, who does the initial drawings, which Laura then turns into acrylic-on-canvas paintings. But the image remains grim: Floating near the Creature is a sea turtle trapped in the rings of a six-pack carrier and a dead fish that has already succumbed to the flow of crude spewing from a burning offshore oil rig—an image that recalls the Gulf of Mexico’s all-too-recent real-life horror show.
Married since 1971, the couple began collaborating on the comic-style paintings in 2014, after Laura happened to use the word monstrous to describe images from an earlier environmental project that never really got off the ground. Gary, who is a “fan of monsters,” says Laura, was inspired to make them the subject of the paintings, and the series took off.
Since then the Dumms have exhibited their paintings several times in Cleveland, where they live and where they recently installed a pollinator-friendly garden in their front yard. The duo have also expanded the scope of the project to include other social issues, such as health care, racism, and the disturbing pitfalls of our increasingly digital and robotic lives.
Their goal, they say, is to get people talking about the world around them. “We make these paintings for everybody,” says Gary. “When we’re showing them, you see two or three people looking at one of them. They start talking, then their arms start moving. They’re discussing things they see in the painting. That’s what we wanted,” he says. “The monsters seduce the viewer into seeing something they believe they are familiar with—at first. Then they realize that these are not just movie monsters. They realize, if they’re willing to do so, that the monsters are us.” That revelation is certainly one to keep us up at night.
Laura and Gary Dumm’s environmental paintings can be seen on their website, www.dummart.com.
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