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Exhibit tries to recapture magic of Fort Thunder

In the summer of 1995, a group of students from the Rhode Island School of Design moved into an old factory building in the Olneyville section of Providence and called it Fort Thunder -- a place to make noise. Many more young bohemians followed, and an underground scene was born: a wildly creative, rambunctiously countercultural ferment that would, by the early 2000s, attract national attention. Out of it came such groups as the noise band Lightning Bolt and the art and music collective Forcefield, whose psychedelic multimedia installation was a hit in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

No doubt you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but ``Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the present," an exhibition at the RISD Museum, gives a strong hint of what it might have been like. Organized by the museum's curator of contemporary art, Judith Tannenbaum, the show comes in two parts, one exciting and one disappointing.

The good part is ``Providence Poster Art, 1995-2005," a display of more than 2,000 silkscreened posters designed over a 10-year period to advertise art exhibitions, rock shows, theater, amateur wrestling bouts, and community events. Covering the walls of three galleries from floor to ceiling, the posters collectively exude a euphoric, anarchic sense of imaginative freedom and possibility. They'll make you wish you'd been there when the scene was happening.

Produced by more than 170 known artists and many more who have not been identified, the the Providence posters were made with a care for craftsmanship and design far beyond that of the common photocopied notices you see in other cities. Just about every 20th-century style is represented, including Art Nouveau, Pop, Expressionism, Surrealism, geometric abstraction, graffiti, underground cartoon, and outsider art. That so many pieces were saved by artists and collectors testifies to the generally high level of inventiveness and aesthetic quality.

In many cases, the exuberant visual dimension overrides the verbal part to such an extent that the posters are hard to read. But as often as not, the words read like poetry: ``Arab on Radar, Get Hustle, Daughters," announce the blocky words in the yellow sky over the image of a giant octopus engulfing a sailing vessel in a 2002 poster for a rock show by Jeremy Wabiszczewicz .

The Providence poster phenomenon was partly the product of a ready supply of graphic talent coming out of RISD. It was also a function of community circumstances. Hundreds of artists and musicians were living on the cheap and putting on shows in the old mills of Olneyville without proper legal permits.

Announcements for shows and events at semi secret, noncommercial venues with names like Candle Factory, Box of Knives, and Pink Rabbit had to be camouflaged and encoded so that people in the know could read them while the police and fire marshals would remain out of the loop. Headphones hanging in places around the gallery allow visitors to listen to old recordings of some of those boisterous shows.

A grass - roots art community persists in Providence -- and, because of RISD, always will -- but not like it did before 2002, when city officials evicted artists from Fort Thunder. The scene was, in a way, a victim of its own success, as media coverage alerted authorities to what was going on. The hip design magazine Nest had a 22-page spread on Fort Thunder in its Summer 2001 issue. In 2002, the Fort was demolished to make room for a strip mall, and in subsequent years developers pushed large numbers of artists out of other local loft spaces.

The second part of the RISD Museum show, called ``Shangri-la-la-land," tries to recover the magic of the Fort Thunder days, but it doesn't work. The idea was to have eight artists who were early players in the Olneyville scene (including three who were members of Forcefield) collaborate in creating a fantasy village in the woolly style that prevailed when artists decorated their lofts in over-the-top profusions of artworks and recycled found materials.

Dimly illuminated by snake-skin-shaded overhead lights designed by Pippi Zornoza, the gallery is filled with funky, sound-and video-enhanced constructions and sculptures.

Brian Chippendale and Xander Marro each built a fanciful walk-in house that could be part of a children's theater set, and Mat Brinkman, one of the best of the poster makers, constructed a giant green papier-mache ogre. Leif Goldberg's assemblage with futuristic music and a mesmerizing video projection of flickering patterns is centered around a white humanoid figure recently revived from cryogenic deep freeze.

Erin Rosenthal made a papier-mache sculpture of a volcano with a drumming soundtrack and video patterns shooting out of its top through discs of stretched gauze hanging above. Jungil Hong created a balloonlike form out of cut-up plastic bags with a surrealistic terrarium in a glass sphere suspended inside, and Jim Drain used a Northwest Indian totem pole from the RISD Museum collection as the center of a vibrantly patterned, painted wood wall like an altar screen for an ultra-ecumenical church.

None of the works in ``Shangri-la-la-land" is quite as zany as you feel they're supposed to be. The style of polyglot, primitivistic idiosyncrasy is too familiar by now. But the larger problem is that each artist's work stands on its own as a conventionally individual artwork. The communal synergy that would transform the sum of the parts into a mind-blowing whole -- the essence of the Olneyville scene -- just doesn't happen.

There is something a little sad about this. Scenes fade away, people grow up and become less recklessly adventurous (seven of the ``Shangri-la-la-land" artists are in their 30s). You can't recover the magic of a bygone perfect moment, much less capture it in a museum exhibition. It's too elusive, too fleeting. If there is a new underground scene percolating in Providence now, chances are that by the time you read about it in the papers, it will already be over.

Ken Johnson can be reached at

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