Mark "Ultranova" opens the door and smiles. He's a slender young man and a natty dresser -- square, thick-rimmed eyeglasses, crisp white shirt, and stylish, retro tie.
"Welcome to Blackhole," he says, stepping to one side so that I might enter the tiny vestibule created by a partition of cloudy, corrugated plastic swinging from a ceiling bathed in pale, purple light. Blackhole is a private, underground space that was established by "Ultranova" to facilitate group participation in an intimate, artistic atmosphere. The crowd is strictly word-of-mouth and rarely exceeds Blackhole's limit of 40 people, but the events are very stimulating: all-boy socials, all-girl pampering parties, spirit mixers, spoken word, stand-up comedy, raw-food dinners, art installations, live lounge nights, and a sold-out four-month run of Titillation Theater.
"Ultranova" takes my coat and hangs it with a dozen others near a fanciful lamp, which is topped by a tall, furry, slightly askew, lavender shade. Despite its charms, the lamp is not the primary source of the purple light. Stepping around the partition, I find tubes of black light illuming the walls of the Blackhole lounge, making whites luminescent. Another partition of corrugated plastic hangs from the ceiling like a tatami dressing screen, breaking up the intimate space where a half-dozen people recline on tall pillow-strewn daises covered in red velvet upholstery and leopard-skin fun fur. In one corner, a fluorescent model of our solar system twirls lazily over the DJ deck, where a well-worn copy of the Revenge of the Nerds soundtrack is proudly displayed. DJ Grin & Bear It segues into Bob Dorough's "Zero Is My Hero," from the 1973 Multiplication Rock collection, and the guests smile, sipping wine and nibbling on Cheez Doodles under the soft billows of a black parachute that drapes from the ceiling.
"Do you remember these?" asks a handsome man in a dark sweater, passing me a Wacky Pack trading card featuring a parody of a freeze-dried coffee ad that touts "Taxim," a jar of squeeze-dried thumb tacks that "wake you up fast!" I grin and follow him to a dais strewn with an odd array of toys, magazines, trading cards, insects, hats, dolls, and books.
This collection of collections, to which each Blackhole guest is expected to contribute, has become the heart of tonight's "Geek-tique," an evening conceived by artHut curator Elliot Lessing.
The artHut has been Lessing's living-room gallery, of some growing renown, for the last two years. (Recently Lessing was encouraged to relocate after the two-hour installation of "Pool," a stunning piece by Lynn Lu that involved natural light, a sparse Victorian room, hardwood floors, and two inches of water.) Lessing's own reputation in the underground art world has more to do with his superb taste and genteel attitude than his art degree.
"I'd really like to expand the job description of the artist," says the elegant Lessing. "Sometimes it means facilitating the art experience in an intimate, informal setting. Sometimes it means helping someone with their packages on a crowded bus."
With "Geek-tique," it means sharing stories, and stuff.
The game of show-and-tell evolves slowly, organically. Inspired by a Kraftwerk song, Blackhole neighbor Joan Brady brings out a skeleton marionette, which she sets to dancing. Her skill is exceptional: The skeleton's moves are cool and flawless, imbued with a Teutonic nightclub sensibility that is only too rare in marionettes. Another several guests trickle in from the bar/ kitchen, applauding appreciatively when the skeleton gives a dismissive nod of its head instead of a bow. The intimate crowd of acquaintances and soon- to-be-acquainted strangers drifts apart again. Some retreat to the patio to join a small group of smokers engaged in conversation; others peruse the collections, asking one another to share stories.
Brady, it turns out, was not always a chef. The skeleton is but one of nearly 100 puppets she keeps for the pleasure and trifles of her alter ego, Zero the Clown.
"I did a show last weekend, in Carmel, with the magician Silly Billy," says Brady, whose pigtails look as if they always naturally spring from her head like electric eels. "It was the first one in a long time. I'm always working now."
Silly Billy, a very sensible-looking 33-year-old who works as an employment recruiter, introduces himself as Bill Wicht. His collection is a box of 12 finely detailed bug replicas. "They're the best I've ever found," says Wicht, who has been collecting and pinning real bugs since he was a child. He won't give up his retail source.
"I will tell you this: September is tarantula breeding season on Mount Diablo," says Wicht. "It's really fascinating."
Leah Fenimore and Steven Tobin brought bindis to "Geek-tique" and an example from their Globe Mini Mag collection. "This is How to Talk to Your Cat," says Fenimore, a 38-year-old massage therapist. "Globe also offers other important things, like garlic recipes for athlete's foot and horoscopes for your dog."
"How to Talk to Your Cat comes complete with hair samples from our cats, Tomato and Gazelle," says Tobin. "Gazelle was graceful once. Now, she's as big as a buffalo."
Acting bartender and seashell collector Angela Zangara makes the rounds with martini glasses filled with vodka-based blue Jell-O and blackberries, which blend nicely with the equally strange offerings of Rice Krispies treats, homemade Oreos, and marshmallowy twists from Japan.
Full-time high-rise maintenance engineer and part-time model Jabal Angelhard shares his collection of warm knit caps and woolies. "I was trained as an engineer at sea," he says, before launching into an explanation of why chlorine is added to the seawater coolant systems aboard large ships. Angelhard then disappears with a lovely woman and a Jell-O martini into the black-light-white-satin cuddle alcove.
DJ Grin eagerly directs me to his folder of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards -- sets one through eight. "I started collecting these when I was 7," says Matt Henri as the Stranglers purr out of his sound system. "I saved my lunch money and rode my bike all the way into town from our place in the country. They were a quarter a pack." Henri offers a few of the guests unopened packs, then leads me to a chessboard comprised of the gumball machine Homies created by David Gonzales.
"L.A. is a blue town," says Henri. "[Gonzales] only does blue Homies, so I had to paint the clothes of the opposing set in red to represent the north, then I took the board to Modesto and taught the young gang kids to play chess. They put down their PlayStation cuz they could relate."
Sharon Murtagh, who's been listening in fascination, talks about her father, who has been sending her packs of playing cards from all over the world for the last 30 years. "I've got packs from throughout Northern Europe and Asia," she says with a wistful smile. "If I didn't purge every once in a while, I'd have hundreds, but it's still sweet when I get one in the mail."
"I wanted to see what Elliot was up to tonight," says sound artist Aaron Ximm, who contributed a sound piece to "Systems Up!," a recent Lessing exhibition at Blackhole that included a wall created by Lynn Lu with 100 jars filled with live crickets wired for sound. "The work he brings together is consistently good and provocative, always an odd assortment of artists that I don't know, so I knew the ["Geek-tique'] would be interesting, too."
"I liked squeezing the Creepy Crawlers," says John Vigna with good-natured fortitude. "We used to bake them in the oven."
"They were like currency," says Lessing, fingering a dusty rubber monster. "I used to trade them with other kids. Also the Wacky Packs. I think Wacky Packs really helped shape me in some way -- the underlying democracy of Mad magazine-style parody, the freedom and liberty assumed in that sort of soft subversion. I love that."