The first thing a viewer notices about Daniel Mrgan’s solo exhibition at Bluelucy is that the show has been staged like an immersive book. If you don’t mind following a polite request, you’ll stroll from left to right around the gallery reading framed texts and seeing illustrations of Sir Dr. Admiral Rupert Xavier, the exhibition’s fictional and acutely neurotic protagonist. As a complement to Sir Rupert’s anachronistically hip style (he sports high-waisted pants, suspenders and a formidable mustache), a ragtime-ish soundtrack circulates over speakers in the gallery. A wall-mounted sculpture of the character’s head permits visitors to duck inside his noggin, literally.
The second thing a viewer notices is that Sir Rupert’s destinations remain largely un-pictured in the work on view. Granted, they’re fantasies— the exhibition title, Sir Dr. Admiral Rupert Xavier's Paper Plane Flights to Exotic Mind Destinations, makes that pretty clear — but only once does one of Mrgan’s brightly colored ink drawings provide an image of a mind destination. The rest of the narrative, which unfolds more than 30 works including texts, drawings, wood burnings and sculptures, tells a story not so much about adventures as about the two psychic forces that govern Sir Rupert’s life: the anxieties that constrain him and the imagination that sets him free.
“The inner world is to me the most interesting world to explore,” Mrgan explained when I met him for lunch last week. “That’s one thing I can definitely say about my art. I’m more interested in someone who is sitting quietly than somebody who is jumping around.”
The exhibition is a strong outing for Mrgan, who has become somewhat of a mainstay in St. Pete art shows (Bluelucy, C. Emerson Fine Arts and the Dunedin Fine Art Center have all exhibited his work) despite being not particularly prolific by choice. A whole solo exhibition is a rare treat from a guy who has devoted most of his time to building a career as a graphic designer since moving from Croatia to Pinellas County at 21 — he’s 36 now and lives in St. Pete — and who regards art as an introspective exploration best pursued after practical concerns like paying the bills have been dispatched.
“I create what I feel like creating,” Mrgan says. “I like to make art to have fun, so if it’s something my livelihood depends on, it’s not fun anymore — it’s a job.”
Mrgan wound up in Clearwater after a tumultuous adolescence under the shadow of war in Yugoslavia. His mother and father, who ran a butcher shop in a hotly contested Croatian city near the Serbian border, fled briefly to Berlin— leaving Mrgan and a younger brother behind to finish high school— before the family received refugee visas to the U.S. Their move marked the end of a surreal decade when armed conflict co-existed with an otherwise civilized eastern European standard of living in Croatia, Mrgan says. His stories about the experience, like one of venturing outside to salvage a ping pong table at age 12 with his brother and being fired at by a cannon, are the stuff of a graphic novel.
In those days, Mrgan was already making ‘zines with his brother (who since has also become a graphic designer and lives in Portland, Ore.; a still younger brother is a concept artist and character designer in LA). While studying at Schiller International University and St. Petersburg College, he began making wood burnings of whimsical characters, which caught the eye of Kaya Parwanicka, then a curator at the Dunedin Fine Art Center and a classmate at Schiller, and led her to put him in his first exhibition. Mrgan can’t recall how he started doing the wood burnings, but says it was probably after seeing the technique on television. He uses the cheapest, entry level wood burning pen and planks from Michaels, embracing qualities of the medium that would send other artists running in the opposite direction: its association with home craft projects and folk art, the irregularity of wood surfaces and inexpensive tools, and a kitsch aesthetic of vignetted scenes.
When I first saw Mrgan’s wood burnings, I thought they might owe their bordering-on-twee subjects (e.g., a fox and a bear hugging as they ride a scooter together) to the then-ascendant hipster zeitgeist. That was maybe six years ago— now his characters, including the bearded, paper-plane loving Rupert, definitely run the risk of seeming to invoke a cliche at first glance. For his part, Mrgan shrugs at the thought that Rupert’s quirkiness could look like an affectation; “hipsters are not the first people to invent the beard or suspenders,” he says, pointing out that the same garb recalls socialist eastern Europe from a different perspective.
The Bluelucy solo exhibition gives a good sense of how a critical mass of his work adds up to something more intriguing, a philosophical stance that is worth taking time to savor. Half of Mrgan’s drawings devote themselves to Rupert’s paranoid solitude (his yellow orb of a head peeking out from behind a picket fence and blue house collapsed together in space) and his melancholy anxieties (an actual blue monster that wraps itself around Rupert’s head), while the wood burnings give form to his imagined adventures, transforming the character’s cranium into, alternately, a hot air balloon, the sail of a boat, a spaceship and a puff of smoke.
That’s a lot of head space, and it’s not exclusively light. Alongside comedy — one joke is that Rupert’s day job consists of driving a Google car as it forges a virtual copy of the world — the works propose, or at least begin to suggest, some heavy truths about life. Not least is the irony, which can be either terrible or liberating, that fantasy often functions very well as a stand-in for reality. In Mrgan’s tale, the consequences are only that Sir Rupert lives a wildly imaginative existence alone on paper, but in real life the effects can be social, political and economic.
“At a very young age I realized that a lot of the stuff that you’re told, or that we read, is basically just not true,” Mrgan says.
Sir Dr. Admiral Rupert Xavier's Paper Plane Flights to Exotic Mind Destination is on view through Feb. 8 at Bluelucy Gallery, 653 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-251-8529, bluelucy.net.