In the late 1990s, Gary Setzer was cruising on his bike gazing up at the moon instead of the road.
Naturally, he got in an accident.
And his world changed.
At the time, Setzer, now an associate professor of art at the University of Arizona preparing for the start of the next school year, was in graduate school at Ohio University, pursuing a masters in painting.
That accident put his right arm, his dominant one, in a full cast. Painting with his left would be difficult. About the same time, he began to question if painting was what he really wanted to pursue. Then a professor suggested performance art, until then a genre he had shunned.
“It’s something that I never wanted to do, never intended to do, and I ended up trying it out and I never turned back,” he says.
Setzer uses music and video to create performance pieces that provoke and amuse. They are often wrapped in a bit of surrealism and pops of color hold hands with the absurd. Words and the art of — or lack of — communication are running themes in his works.
In the 2013 music video “The Derivations Suite II: Literally Reaching,” he builds a tower of primary-color numbers and alphabet letters, using his mouth as the base. The tension rises with each addition. When you think he can’t possibly add one more, he does, and then does again.
In his 2012, 5-minute music video “Swamp of the Sound-Image,” a man dressed as a monk in a long brown, hooded robe, and wearing a white mask, wanders across a snowy landscape. An other-worldly hum — as though a fierce, cold wind were blowing — serves as his soundtrack. He does a sort of ritual over a circle of rocks and a kind of parallel universe comes on the screen. It’s spring in the mountains. Birds sing, a slight breeze blows. The monk has disappeared and a large bunny — Setzer in costume — skips through the landscape, disappears, and then slowly rises from the bottom of the screen. He removes the head and begins to sing: “Oh, eyes have teeth and bile ducts./ The optic nerve, esophagus,/ Leads to a swamp Of imagery,/ I’m overwhelmed, this gluttony.”
“I haven’t really seen anyone do work like his,” said Brad McCombs, a friend of Setzer’s and an associate professor and program head for visual arts at Northern Kentucky University.
“He’s really breaking new ground. It’s eye-opening for students to see someone pushing the boundaries.”
Andrew Ranville, a former student of Setzer’s and now an England-based artist, agrees that Setzer’s work is new ground.
“He’s definitely making work that people haven’t seen,” he says. “I don’t know if people are ready for it.”
In 2003, Setzer was an instructor at Bowling Green State University when he joined the dance-punk band Canada’s Electric Tiger Machine, formed by art students at the school.
While the band broke up after the students graduated in ’05, Setzer never got the music bug out of his system.
He decided that he should merge the two.
His 2014 series, his most recent, “The Black Tongue Lexicon,” combines his love for music, words and performance art.
“(‘The Black Tongue Lexicon’) felt right, it merged everything that I was interested in together in a real way that didn’t ask for permission,” Setzer said.
“The Black Tongue Lexicon” is performed live. As Setzer plays electronic music and sings a word-rich Devo-esque song, a video plays on a large screen behind him. In it, Setzer, dressed in a black track suit, is in a barren desert with pristine white sand. He crawls through the sand drawing a line one moment, throws paper into the air in another, and runs in circles around turquoise-colored stones in still another. Sometimes he mimics the action in the film, sometimes not. His song during the piece serves as a sort of guide through the video.
Setzer, who has a shiny bald pate and hip horn-rimmed glasses, does most of his creative conjuring and editing in a cluttered midtown studio nestled above a dentist’s office. Old and new props are scattered across the room.
There are yellow and pink eggs piled in one corner, and children’s toy alphabet letters stacked on top of a filing cabinet.
His sketched-out ideas are pinned or taped to the walls. Some are storyboards that note step-by-step video shots with detailed directions scribbled below each image. Others are diagrams of ideas jotted down to organize his thoughts.
In the center of it sits his main tool — his computer.
To avoid the hum-drum noises of the offices around him, he settles down in his studio when most of his neighbors are gone, usually between 7 p.m. and 3 or 4 a.m.
“I like privacy,” he says. “I like the quietude that evening brings.”
Setzer doesn’t like to improvise his work. It takes careful planning and calculation to perfect something before it’s performed, he says.
He compares his gathering of ideas to brewing tea — he just lets the idea steep anywhere from to a couple of hours to years before acting on it.
“It’s a job that changes every day,” Setzer says about the process of making art. “It can be hard, but bring you great joy.”
Ideas can be inspired by the most mundane objects or great epiphanies.
When he’s ready to take the concept from his head to reality, he begins to draw.
“Everything starts with drawing,” he says. “It’s where I always begin.”
At this point, the medium is less important than the message. It’s all about communication and he’ll use whatever method lends the most understanding to his idea, he says.
His former student Ranville, who was also in the band with him, calls him a “mad genius.”
“His energy and his conceptual rigor with how he approaches his work is unparalleled.”
Art, says Setzer, is an anchor for society. It helps stabilize and shape a cultural relationship with the world.
That is why language figures so prominently into many of his works.
“It’s been almost a long and played out obsession with the gap between what we say and what we mean,” he said.
Most of all, he wants to leave people thinking — even if what they’re thinking is “I don’t get it,” he says.
Setzer says that the response to his performance pieces are often extreme: people either love them or hate them.
“Everybody likes music and everybody likes art,” he says. “But not everybody likes their chocolate and vanilla swirled together.”
He accepts that.
“It does take courage to make art — you’re in this unusual position of attempting to put something out there that doesn’t exist yet,” he said.
When people don’t like his work, it does sting a little, but he doesn’t take it personally.
“I know that what I do isn’t for everybody, nor does it need to be,” he said.
He also knows that work like his often develops a small niche audience instead of a large one.
“The more you figure out yourself,” says Setzer, “the smaller your audience gets.”