Romper Room, now showing at SPACE Gallery, is supposed to be about youth. And really, what could be more sophomoric than a skateboard ramp, walls of graffiti and racks of knickknacks? To mature adults (read: sellouts), Romper Room looks less like installation art than a giant roomful of debris — action figures, drawings, an overturned shopping cart, etc. But to a messy young punk rocker, the seven-artist exhibit is a rebellious utopia.
Taken as a whole, Romper Room is as noisy as a teen-ager's bedroom, but when you zoom in on the details, the in-jokes surface. One standout is Jae Ruberto's pair of hanging photographs, "Kevin Driscoll: Boston's Only Professional Santa and Ventriloquist." Another is Jen Cooney's "Tree Fort," a makeshift tent filled with significant kitsch. You are encouraged to crawl inside, lie on the quilt of rugs and admire the confined scenery.
For this critic, Romper Room is eerily nostalgic, because it harkens back to Oakland in the late 1990s. New undergrads won't recall Tela Ropa, Club Laga, Sombrero Man, the Graffiti Rock Challenge or art films at the old Beehive Coffeehouse. All of these icons have been usurped by chain stores. Fifteen years ago, Forbes Avenue was a place of gritty landscapes and perceived danger, where anarchists skulked in the alleyways and everybody looked stoned, particularly the Miami Subs cashiers. Adventure lurked behind every spray-painted Dumpster. Blink, and you'd find a drum circle beneath an old bridge. If your youth was vibrant and flirted with self-destruction, Romper Room will likely trigger this feeling.
To see that rebellious expression revived in SPACE Gallery is a surreal experience, because it's like trapping a venomous frog in a Mason jar. Romper Room is quirky, eerie, laugh-out-loud funny, but it's also harmless. Here, adult artists replicate the iconography they surely worshipped as younger people. The guest curator, Ladyboy, has done a commendable job of creating atmosphere, and the place is worth a visit. But there's a problem: The surfaces aren't sticky, and the air doesn't smell of burnt coffee or cigarettes. In real life, this kind of clutter takes slackers months and years to collect. Hippie feng shui is deliberate, yet not forced. If you want to see homage, Romper Room is a creative diversion. If you want to see the genuine article, try Belvedere's on a Friday night.