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"Romper Room" exhibit at SPACE gallery balances order, chaos

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 8:04 p.m.
Close-up of one of Jacob Ciocci's mixed-media 'Copy Cats' pieces, on display at Space Gallery Downtown on Saturday, December 22, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
'Santa Claus' shot by Jae Ruberto, which is half of 'Kevin Driscoll: Boston's only professional Santa and ventriloquist', on display at Space Gallery Downtown on Saturday, December 22, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Installation by Ladyboy and Thad Kellstadt, on display at Space Gallery Downtown on Saturday, December 22, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Jim Lingo's installation 'Bedroom O.D./On Your Knees' on display at Space Gallery Downtown on Saturday, December 22, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

From the looks of it, the inside of SPACE gallery, Downtown, has been turned inside out. There's graffiti on the walls, empty beer bottles and other garbage strewn about, even an upturned grocery cart. It's as if the gritty urban scene of some parts of the city have come inside for the winter, all in the name of art.

The whole mess is the doing, or perhaps we should say undoing, of seven artists ­— Jen Cooney, Jae Ruberto, Jacob Ciocci, Matt Barton, Thad Kellstadt, Jim Lingo and Ladyboy. All are in their 30s, and they grew up with a sense of street culture mixed in with the knowledge that it was, and is, a culture unto itself.

Many of them are far flung now (for example, Kellstadt is in Iowa City, Iowa; Ruberto in Boston), but all of them had made Pittsburgh home at some point, and some still do.

“The idea behind the ramps, beer bottles, trash and graffiti was to make an easily identifiable place that many from our generation would instantly recognize as the place that you hung out at as an adolescent,” says the exhibit's organizer, Tommy Bud, who goes by the moniker “Ladyboy.”

A former pro skateboarder who lives in Bloomfield, Bud spent years skating on ramps that were off the beaten path, in poor neighborhoods or worse conditions.

Regardless of why he and his friends ended up in these places, he says, “to some of us, this (exhibit) is a sort of throwback to our youth. To others, this show is just a pile of trash in a gallery. I'm totally into that, too. It's not really for everyone.”

And even though Bud built a career out of skateboarding, he says, “To be clear, this show is not about skateboarding.”

Nevertheless, there are a few skateboards thrown in for good measure, either sticking out of a skateboard ramp or two, or lying, broken in half, in the middle of the floor.

Bud says, “to make what we did was quite a bit of fun.”

He and Kellstadt made the ramps and spread around the trash, while Cooney, the only woman included in the show, had a good old time setting up a blanketed “Tree Fort” off in one corner of the gallery that kids and small adults can climb into and read a book or look at a few of her framed drawings.

Ciocci, who creates what Bud calls “over-stimulated paintings,” has placed several cat-theme works in a line that leads to an animated video he made of them he calls “Copy Cats.” And not far away in distance and spirit, Barton displays an enormous abstract print and a small forest diorama complete with a copulating couple of teddy bears that he has taken to animating, as well.

Not short on imagination, Lingo relocated his bedroom and many of the artifacts he has spent his life collecting, along with paintings and drawings of his own and his friends in an installation he calls “Bedroom O.D./On Your Knees.” And in addition, he has placed a voodoo-inspired installation in the gallery's window that looks like something you'd stumble upon in the backwoods of a swamp, complete with animal skulls, bones and bits of trash that make it look like some kind of pseudo-shamanistic ritual took place there.

Finally, Ruberto displays several shots from his new photography career in Boston where he works mainly as a wedding photographer, as well as shooting other subjects such as the two hilarious (and somewhat creepy) headshots of “Kevin Driscoll: Boston's only professional Santa and ventriloquist.”

“Jae Ruberto added many candid and staged photos and allowed us to graffiti them up if they were in the way,” Bud says, adding, “Jen, Thad, Jim, Jacob, and I were the ones that did all of the graffiti.”

Bud says the show is all about having fun.

“When I was putting together the group I really wanted us to have a good time and made that the driving point in my invitations,” he says. “We all have similar creative tendencies in our individual works, and I knew that we were going to be able to riff off one another and that's what we did. Overall, I really feel satisfied with the balance between chaos and order.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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