Arts & Culture

Mono Feo Emerges as a Boundary Pusher in Charlotte’s Art Scene

Fledgling in Flux

Mono Feo (Photo by @zqlantonio)

I arrived at Mono Feo’s 7 Eyes exhibit at Flux Galleries in desperate need of a toilet. 

The mild mannered … um … let’s call them a milk-police clown working the door (who was, in fact, Mono Feo) said they might be able to help me, so I followed them out of the gallery and down the sidewalk to a door for which the access code was sadly ineffective. 

They shrugged and pointed a gloved finger at a stand of trees lining the street. When you gotta go, you gotta go. 

So, there I was, committing at least a couple of misdemeanors in full view of the people pulling in to see the same show as me. Yes. It turns out I was pissing in a parking lot. The feeling of unwanted exposure was appropriate, it turned out, as the loose theme of the show, and much of Mono Feo’s creative work, involved our immersion in America’s surveillance apparatus. 

The show, which ran at Flux Galleries in the compound formerly known as Area 15 on East 15th Street from Jan. 26-Feb. 3, made a rich meal out of the relationship between intimacy and alienation observed up close. 

A variety of artists including Ngoc M. Ha, Steven LeFlair, Sofia Sonera, Maryssa Picket and Quynh Vu showed work with concerns that ran the gamut of the personal and political, but whose works all share a livid, bruised quality — a too closeness to the material that distorts to either hilarious or chilling effect. 

Ngoc M. Ha’s Polaroids read as stolen moments from a friendship the viewer had no real claim to. A motorized sculptural work by Chris Nichol emphasized the difference in scale between the poor serfs and the masters of the universe who leer down on us like rapacious ghosts. 

That work was framed as explicitly political, but the grotesquerie of the central figure had an almost supernatural feel to it, and could be read (perhaps by the gnostics among us) as a religious work. 

The 7 Eyes exhibit, as well as the accompanying Midnight Homemovies event — a microfest consisting of ultrashort DIY films including work by Andy the Doorbum and a coterie of mostly Charlotte-based artists) — gave us a glimpse into Mono Feo’s curatorial sensibility, one which seems more interested in gathering a community of like-minded weirdos than in illuminating a clear vision of the world. 

Mono Feo stands in front of a blue screen with his fist raised
Mono Feo hosts Midnight Homemovies. (Photo by @zqlantonio)

Perhaps Mono Feo and the gang think that clarity itself is an illusion, that the only stability possible is in the relationship between the watcher and the watched. How very poststructuralist of them!

The show was anchored by a large-scale sculptural installation by Mono Feo, the event’s impresario and an exciting if befuddling presence emerging on the local art scene. 

The work consisted firstly of a large papier-mache dog, rendered mid-shit in a janky cartoon style. From inside the dog emerged sounds of barking and a young woman’s garbled voice. 

Looking into the dog’s eyes was an uncanny experience. I found out why when I ventured into the next part of the installation: a peep show booth complete with lube and Kleenex (I’ll leave it to you to figure out what those are for). 

In the booth, a screen showed live footage from the perspective of the dog. Everyone who visited the dog or even sat on the couch set a few feet back from it was now fodder and fuel for whatever depraved acts might occur in the booth. 

This is the point at which I start to wonder what Mono Feo is really getting at. Is this a critique of the individual’s collusion in the psycho-sexual politics of fascism — hence his milkman-clown cop getup — or is it something more prurient? Is Mono getting off on us?

Mono Feo’s papier mache dog installation. (Photo courtesy of Mono Feo via Instagram)

Someone wise (it was me) once said, “It isn’t avant garde if it doesn’t piss somebody off.” Mono Feo (that’s an alias, translating to “Ugly Monkey” in Spanish, just so we’re clear) is certainly making work that could piss some people off.

Whether it’s “Industrial Scarecrows,a trio of crucifixions executed in what seems to be the trademark naive grotesque of the artist’s current era, then placed (in the dead of night and on the fuzzy edges of legality) on public property, or the video work that trades in frenzied violence performed by clowns and monsters to a soundtrack of grating industrial music, Mono Feo seems intent on brutalizing their audiences in some ways.

Whether that is a means to an end or the ultimate goal of the work remains a mystery to me. The self-trained artist, who at 23 is still very much at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long career, is a bit of an enigma — and I get the feeling that they like it that way. 

Mono Feo will only consent to be photographed while masked or wearing face paint. Their work in sculpture and film has a slippery quality to it — a sense of defying definition, or of deceptive simplicity. 

While their work is aggressive, violent and explicitly radical, Mono is mild-mannered and extremely polite in person. Looking at them, it seems unlikely that they could be the one behind the work that they are becoming known for, work which seems to be influenced as much by underground comix and ’70’s Time Square sleaze as by industrial music pioneer Monte Cazazza and Throbbing Gristle frontperson and Chaos Magick luminary Genesis P. Orridge. 

Both artists who, in true avant garde fashion, pissed a lot of people off.

I do not count myself among the outraged (except, of course, for that brief moment out in front of Flux Gallery when I was nearly caught with my pants undone). In fact, I find Mono Feo’s work in Charlotte quite exciting. It has the clumsiness and ambition and brashness and impact we want to see from young artists … from old artists … from artists in general. 

No matter what else you may say about Mono Feo and their happy gang of clowns, they are not just talking about it, they are doing it. What is it? Well, I’m not sure, but it must be willing to fail or offend in the process of its emergence. And it is. This is a good thing. 

The avant garde — those at the forefront, pushing boundaries and expanding expectations — are a vital part of any real arts ecosystem. In an aesthetically conservative city like Charlotte, it’s even more important that we have people willing to take risks. 

This willingness to risk something, to have real skin in the game, is something that Mono Feo is consciously applying to their work. 

When asked about the illegality or moral gray areas of their practice, Mono turned risk into a badge of commitment: “In order for art to be successful in pushing social change, there has to be some risk involved in order to show your commitment,” they responded. “People only believe you if you show them how far you are willing to go.”

Right now that willingness to push the envelope includes placing shocking sculptures in places where they are not meant to be or shooting short films without permits in local grocery stores. I find myself wondering what is next, especially given the questions about consent that the dog peep show installation at 7 Eyes raised. 

If Mono Feo wants to be truly transgressive, what does that mean? What does that look like? 

Is it possible to be successfully transgressive in a cultural moment where many audiences seem to conflate representation with endorsement and a premium is placed on viewers’ feelings of safety over all? 

I’m not entirely sure that there is an answer to these questions, at least right now, but I’m confident that this uncertainty seems to be at the center of Mono Feo’s anarchic appeal.


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