Mark Hogancamp dolls up misfortune in Marwencol

New York artist's imaginary world resonates with bitter truths

Mark Hogancamp has long been a familiar feature of the rural landscape of Kingston, N.Y. He regularly walks the twisting forest roads, pulling a miniature Army jeep loaded with Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe-type action figures, while hewing closely to the shoulder's white line for balance. In his World War II helmet and bomber jacket, the stocky 49-year-old is a visual non sequitur: tough and butch on the outside, fragile and emotionally vulnerable on the inside. Hogancamp's story is both delightfully odd and incredibly sad, a life defined by the search for love, occasional homelessness and profound alcoholism. In what has become the defining event of his life, Hogancamp was viciously attacked 11 years ago when he confided to a stranger in a bar that he was a cross-dresser. In return, that man and four of his friends beat Hogancamp so severely he suffered brain damage, lost his memory, and his ability to write and walk.

Hogancamp, like many writers and artists before him, took refuge in a world of his own creation and governed by rules he rained down from above. He named it Marwencol. Marwencol is a WWII Belgian village located outside Hogancamp's mobile home built from wood scraps in 1/6 scale. It takes its name from an amalgam of Mark's name and the names of two Kingston women he once pined for: Wendy and Colleen. In Marwencol, Malibu Barbies with perpetually blissed-out expressions string Nazis up like slaughtered venison, and gamey soldier boys huddle together in teary fits of brotherhood. It's as if outsider artist Henry Darger, with his violently hell-raising "Vivian girls," hooked up with doll-photographer Laurie Simmons to stage scenarios of bloody girl-power scripted by Quentin Tarantino.

Marwencol became Hogancamp's escape, someplace he could disappear, as well as the artist's own improvised therapy. Created after his physical therapy money was cut off, Marwencol allowed him to work on his fine motor skills by painting makeup on itty-bitty doll faces or cocking Tic-Tac sized pistols.

Currently, the Westside gallery {Poem 88} offers a small sliver of Hogancamp's world in photographs with the exhibit Marwencol, brought to Atlanta in part through the passionate interest of Atlanta native David Naugle. Naugle is an Atlanta College of Art-schooled photographer, whose avocation has been documenting the lives and work of people one might describe as "characters." When Naugle relocated to Kingston in 2003, he struck up a friendship with Hogancamp and one day found a package of photographs in his mailbox inscribed with the words "this is my world." "He started photographing these just to prove to his friends and people he worked with that these things were so real," says Naugle, who now lives in Decatur with his wife and two children.

Naugle's interest created a domino effect: An editor friend at the art journal Esopus featured Hogancamp's work in a 2005 issue; Hogancamp then landed a show at the Manhattan gallery White Columns; and he became the subject of the acclaimed 2010 documentary on his life and work, Marwencol by Jeff Malmberg.

Hogancamp uses a point-and-shoot Pentax with a broken light meter that might have seriously impaired another photographer's ability to create polished images. Despite that crude tool, Hogancamp nevertheless breathes life into Marwencol's inanimate objects, distilling his obsessions and emotions into this tiny world with an uncanny ring of truth.

Marwencol is composed of 23 small images taken by Hogancamp and allows a glimpse of life in the village: a group of chipper Barbie dolls cavorting at a Marwencol bar; a German sniper taking aim in a snowy landscape. The photos are hung in the gallery like an excited, breathless rush of words, crushed in together. Within the capacious {Poem 88}, the relatively small-scale 4x6 and 3 1/2x5 images can feel like a slim showing. But what the photographs do convey is the fascinating obsessiveness in Hogancamp's approach. Naugle points out that the images' veracity is due in large part to Hogancamp's creative use of deep focus photography and his eye for clever props, such as a toothpaste cap and Christmas tree light fused to create the illusion of a lamp. The images also carry a palatable sense of innocence: They feel like a child's notion of adult life.

Alongside Hogancamp's images in Marwencol are six of Naugle's photographs of the artist at work, hovering like a benevolent Japanese movie monster over Marwencol's miniature town. Like Hogancamp's own images, where sex, violence and tenderness collide, Naugle's work shows some of the gorgeous contradictions of Hogancamp's worldview. On the shelf inside Hogancamp's trailer, for instance, a cadre of Barbies sits like Stepford Wives on their lunch hour, surrounded by WWII and Vietnam imagery, a magazine shot of Princess Diana, and a photo of a baby-faced Hogancamp in his Navy days.

Marwencol definitely leaves one craving more: more Marwencol and more news of this fascinating man. Perhaps the ultimate meta-Marwencol narrative is already in the works. Naugle recently discovered that Hogancamp has been devising a world-within-a-world inside Marwencol. In this new wrinkle, Hogancamp's doll alter ego "Hogie" creates models of yet another miniature village in 1/32 scale. The mind reels at the possibilities.

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