GWAR: Art from the Pit

Creation has always been as simple as finding someplace dark, warm and wet. Toss in some bacteria and wait for the party to start.

Back in 1985, that dark, warm and wet place was the urban landscape surrounding Virginia Commonwealth University. The bacteria was a motley group of artists and musicians.

And the multiheaded monstrosity that lumbered out of the shadows was called GWAR.

Smart money would have pegged the band as a one-shot goof, an outlandish product of idle hands, cheap beer and wild imaginations. After all, the band played head-nodder heavy metal, a genre hardly considered avant-garde.

What set GWAR apart was its live show. Onstage, band members dressed as horrific characters, a mix of “Lord of the Rings” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Once word spread about the band’s ultra-violent, schlock-rock circus, everything changed.

Soon, what started as a performance art experiment became an international underground sensation. And 20 years later, a small army of misfit artists finds itself at the helm of America’s most bizarre corporation.

“We created our own niche and stuck there,” said Bob Gorman, an artist who joined GWAR in 1988. “We’re the ultimate anti-heroes. We want to have fun and we don’t want to be told what to do.”

Tomorrow, the group unveils “The Art of GWAR” at the Artspace Gallery in Manchester’s Plant Zero Art Center. The exhibit is a collection of costumes, props, posters and comic art. The show is a sampling of two decades of output by the members of Slave Pit Incorporated.

For clarity’s sake, members of GWAR classify themselves as musicians or artists.

Musicians play the music and portray the lead characters: vocalist Dave Brockie is Oderus Urungus; guitarist Mike Derks is Balsac; bassist Todd Evans is Beefcake the Mighty; guitarist Cory Smoot is Flattus Maximus; and drummer Brad Roberts is Jizmak Da Gusha.

The artists draw, paint, sculpt and mold in the full-time fabrication shop known as The Slave Pit. Artists create costumes, sets and peripheral materials such as T-shirts and comic books. They also play minor characters during the onstage antics.

But no one settles for a single job description. Ideas come from everywhere.

“Artistically, we’re a commune,” Gorman said. “That’s our strength, that’s the reason we’re still around.”

Since 2003, the group has operated the Slave Pit in a nondescript building on Hull Street. The windows are boarded shut. You won’t find a neon sign advertising the home base of the “Scumdogs of the Universe.”

Inside, the workspace is divided in two. On one side is a storage room packed to the ceiling with 20 years of spare parts. It’s a vault of giant skulls, battle-scarred robots and faux stone set pieces.

Three man-sized black containers stand in a corner. Each “blood tank” is strapped to its own red dolly. Onstage they hiss and spew like gory sprinklers, soaking the crowd and adding messy punctuation to amputations and beheadings.

The other side of Slave Pit headquarters is a workspace with four weathered tables and a mud-caked floor. Against one wall, legs and torsos are stacked like firewood. Tattered battle flags and posters hang from the wall.

The white plaster head of guitarist Mike Derks waits patiently to be fitted with the dreadlocked Balsac helmet.

Gorman and Matt Maguire, an artist who joined GWAR in 1991, run the shop. Together they deliver new costumes from concept to creation. They construct the oversized sets. And because their art takes a beating on stage, repair work usually tops their to-do list.

In the weeks leading up to a tour, the Slave Pit becomes a monster factory in overdrive. What they do is custom work that cuts across several disciplines. Since they’ve been working, Maguire and Gorman have perfected techniques for sculpting, casting and pouring latex molds.

In essence, the Slave Pit is a special effects company with one client.

“The way we do things has to be different than Hollywood,” Gorman explained. “It has to last. It has to be hosed down at the end of the night and stuffed in a box.”

Gorman said “The Art of GWAR” is a chance for the band to showcase the scope of its projects. He hopes they appreciate the detailed art behind the hilarious, the lewd and the just plain odd.

For those unfamiliar with GWAR, the show is an opportunity to sample the band’s salaciousness without the crowd, the noise or the Gallagher-like rain of make-believe body fluids.

“There is nothing else like GWAR,” Gorman said. “No one has ever done something like this, consistently for 20 years.”

The last few years have been steady for GWAR. After the exhibit, the band will gear up for a summer festival tour. Afterwards, they’ll finish a new album and then hit the road once again around Halloween.

Beyond that, the members of GWAR are looking to diversify. Gorman and Maguire are convinced that somewhere on the horizon is a Broadway-style spectacular.

“We’re made for that,” said Gorman. “We never had any money or budget and we still pulled off the craziest junk in the world.”

One thing is certain, age has not mellowed the mutant-metal masters. While the world may have caught up with their wild and wicked ways, band members promise that nothing they ever do will be predictable.

“We still have to pull ourselves back a bit,” said Maguire. “We still shock people.”

And if they ever stumble on a place that seems way beyond the limits of poor taste?

“We’ll still go there,” Maguire said.

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on January 26, 2006
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