Collect Call

Dropping in on Mark "Ultranova" at Blackhole for a little obsession with the art of things

The evening is mild but unusually dark. Living, as I do, amid the stuttering bedlam of a popular bar neighborhood, I am unaccustomed to the soft darkness of a residential area after 10, even if it only lasts for a few short blocks. Behind me, a streetlamp casts a flaxen puddle that is more salutation than safeguard, and a stoplight shifts mutely from yellow to red, offering direction to a lone, empty bus. On the block, a single living room window floats in the ice-blue current of late-night TV; the rest are dark and dormant, preparing for the workday. I don't know what I expect here, but I walk up and down the quiet street nonetheless. On my second pass, I notice the boarded-up windows of a derelict storefront. The old sign hanging overhead says something like "Nisilobaid," which means nothing to me, but I peer through the gated entryway and notice a black dot painted on the door. Above the dot are the words "You are here." I knock.

Mark "Ultranova"opens the door and smiles. He's a slender young man and a natty dresser -- square, thick-rimmed eyeglasses, crisp white shirt, and stylish, retro tie.

"Welcome to Blackhole," he says, stepping to one side so that I might enter the tiny vestibule created by a partition of cloudy, corrugated plastic swinging from a ceiling bathed in pale, purple light. Blackhole is a private, underground space that was established by "Ultranova" to facilitate group participation in an intimate, artistic atmosphere. The crowd is strictly word-of-mouth and rarely exceeds Blackhole's limit of 40 people, but the events are very stimulating: all-boy socials, all-girl pampering parties, spirit mixers, spoken word, stand-up comedy, raw-food dinners, art installations, live lounge nights, and a sold-out four-month run of Titillation Theater.

"Ultranova" takes my coat and hangs it with a dozen others near a fanciful lamp, which is topped by a tall, furry, slightly askew, lavender shade. Despite its charms, the lamp is not the primary source of the purple light. Stepping around the partition, I find tubes of black light illuming the walls of the Blackhole lounge, making whites luminescent. Another partition of corrugated plastic hangs from the ceiling like a tatami dressing screen, breaking up the intimate space where a half-dozen people recline on tall pillow-strewn daises covered in red velvet upholstery and leopard-skin fun fur. In one corner, a fluorescent model of our solar system twirls lazily over the DJ deck, where a well-worn copy of the Revenge of the Nerdssoundtrack is proudly displayed. DJ Grin & Bear It segues into Bob Dorough's "Zero Is My Hero," from the 1973 Multiplication Rock collection, and the guests smile, sipping wine and nibbling on Cheez Doodles under the soft billows of a black parachute that drapes from the ceiling.

"Do you remember these?" asks a handsome man in a dark sweater, passing me a Wacky Packtrading card featuring a parody of a freeze-dried coffee ad that touts "Taxim,"a jar of squeeze-dried thumb tacks that "wake you up fast!" I grin and follow him to a dais strewn with an odd array of toys, magazines, trading cards, insects, hats, dolls, and books.

This collection of collections, to which each Blackhole guest is expected to contribute, has become the heart of tonight's "Geek-tique,"an evening conceived by artHutcurator Elliot Lessing.

The artHut has been Lessing's living-room gallery, of some growing renown, for the last two years. (Recently Lessing was encouraged to relocate after the two-hour installation of "Pool," a stunning piece by Lynn Lu that involved natural light, a sparse Victorian room, hardwood floors, and two inches of water.) Lessing's own reputation in the underground art world has more to do with his superb taste and genteel attitude than his art degree.

"I'd really like to expand the job description of the artist," says the elegant Lessing. "Sometimes it means facilitating the art experience in an intimate, informal setting. Sometimes it means helping someone with their packages on a crowded bus."

With "Geek-tique," it means sharing stories, and stuff.

The game of show-and-tell evolves slowly, organically. Inspired by a Kraftwerksong, Blackhole neighbor Joan Bradybrings out a skeleton marionette, which she sets to dancing. Her skill is exceptional: The skeleton's moves are cool and flawless, imbued with a Teutonic nightclub sensibility that is only too rare in marionettes. Another several guests trickle in from the bar/ kitchen, applauding appreciatively when the skeleton gives a dismissive nod of its head instead of a bow. The intimate crowd of acquaintances and soon- to-be-acquainted strangers drifts apart again. Some retreat to the patio to join a small group of smokers engaged in conversation; others peruse the collections, asking one another to share stories.

Brady, it turns out, was not always a chef. The skeleton is but one of nearly 100 puppets she keeps for the pleasure and trifles of her alter ego, Zero the Clown.

"I did a show last weekend, in Carmel, with the magician Silly Billy," says Brady, whose pigtails look as if they always naturally spring from her head like electric eels. "It was the first one in a long time. I'm always working now."

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