Sculptor Ajax Axe imagines art of a future past at the Gonzo Gallery |

Sculptor Ajax Axe imagines art of a future past at the Gonzo Gallery

"Changing Perception" by Ajax Phillips at the Gonzo Gallery.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: ‘Cult of Phi,’ sculptures by Ajax W. Axe

Where: Gonzo Gallery, 625 E. Hyman Ave.

When: Saturday, Feb. 13, 6 – 10 p.m. opening reception. Exhibition runs through March 2.

How much: Free

More info:

The Gonzo Gallery has taken on a templelike aura as it’s been filled with sculptures seemingly from a mysterious distant past. Or, in the imagination of sculptor Ajax W. Axe, a distant future.

Axe, the current nom de art of Aspen-based artist-photographer-writer Ajax Phillips, opens her 32-work show “Cult of Phi” in the gallery today.

There are creatures on the floor, which appear to have been frozen in midwalk, on legs of antlers, baring expressive, ancient-looking masks. Other totemic pieces lay Sphinxlike on pedestals, with bodies fashioned from molded and burnt cardboard, with coats of rusty nails and time-worn masks.

The sculptures are made from crude stuff such as cardboard and mining materials found on Aspen Mountain, combined with elk antlers, animal skulls, rope, wire and masks collected from Africa.

Axe, 30, collected masks in her years as a photojournalist, working in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere. She tends to pick up materials from wherever she’s working — thus, the bones and antlers found in Rocky Mountain forest and at trading posts, the mining detritus, the cardboard.

“If I was in New York City, I probably wouldn’t be using antlers in my work,” she said Tuesday in the gallery. “I’d probably be using old umbrellas or whatever happened to be easily available that had an interesting shape. With the masks, it’s not because they’re African, per se, it’s because they embody a sense of mystery that I’m trying to engender.”

The show also includes works that one might find on a more foreboding and mystical version of the Island of Misfit Toys: there’s “Certainty,” a functional slot machine that, when you pull the lever, inevitably comes up all question marks. And there’s “Luck,” a bingo cage that produces bingo balls marked “life” or “death.” Axe’s massive “Altered Consciousness” features masks dangling on coconut husk rope from a wool-covered bamboo board, which spins atop a stand of leather and antlers. Her “Changing Perception” invites viewers to press their faces close against a skull-topped magnifying glass.

The works in the show spawned from Axe imagining an anthropology of the future, which studies an enlightened society Axe has dubbed the “Cult of Phi.” The idea is that after an apocalyptic event, a more open-minded global society than today’s emerged, and these works came from its people.

“It’s become cliche to think about the future as being apocalyptic and dark,” she said. “We can choose to be ancestors that lead to a dark future or an enlightened one. It became more interesting to me to explore what a more enlightened society would be interested in.”

Out of that spirit emerges “The Absolute Truth,” a centerpiece of the show. It’s round and Earth-like (fashioned from an exercise ball and blackened cardboard), pocked with wheels, and covered in assertions that, through history, have been accepted as truth: “the gods live forever,” “God created the world,” “the Earth is the center of the universe” and “the Big Bang created the universe.” They’re written appropriately in chalk, reminiscent of classroom lessons.

“These ideas are constantly evolving over time,” Axe said. ”But we often express them as though they were total truth and we’ve figured it out and this is the end of the journey toward understanding the universe. In fact, we don’t know and probably never will.”

She made most of the pieces in her studio on the backside of Aspen Mountain over the last two years, and has been working out of a basement on N. Mill St. since the fall. Axe first visited Aspen for the Summer Words literary conference in 2008 and settled here in 2012 to make art and take classes at Anderson Ranch Arts Center while also working at the Gonzo Gallery and editing Daniel Joseph Watkins’ 2015 book “Freak Power,” on Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 Pitkin County sheriff campaign.

Her interest in cardboard, providing the backbone for most of the “Cult of Phi” pieces, came from an Anderson Ranch class with Jason Schneider two years ago. She found her own style of working with it — dipping it in glue, layering it with clay and mud, burning it to find the distinctive rough-hewn aesthetic of her new work.

“I liked the concept of using it,” she said. “It’s cheap and available everywhere, and I love materials like that.”

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