A terse warning on Sean Madden's Web site speaks volumes to prospective viewers about his artwork.
"If you want puppies and baskets of flowers," the message says, "get off of my site."
It's not exactly a ringing self-endorsement, but then Madden isn't interested in the mainstream. The Rochester painter, sculptor and musician bills himself as an underground artist whose work would be better off in a Stephen Lynch film than hanging over your grandmother's couch. He has pontificated in print about his desire to "head butt society down the stairs" and rails against a society rife with people he calls "ordinarians."
Madden's creations, quite intentionally, have nothing to do with puppies, rainbows, sunsets or anything remotely in danger of being described as "pretty." The great majority of Madden's work consists of dark renderings of grotesque visions, including suicidal clowns, flesh-eating demons and grim biomorphic formations of questionable origin. Madden's first major show in his hometown runs at Allentown's College Street Gallery until July 29.
Madden had a rough childhood in a North Buffalo neighborhood in the '70s and described his adolescence as a wayward period of skipping school, stealing cars and jumping trains to Canada. He was expelled from high school shortly after 10th grade, but later enrolled in an alternative education program held in the basement of a church on the city's East Side.
"Probably most of the kids I went to school with, literally, are either dead or in jail," Madden said. "You'd say, 'Where's Fred?' and the teacher would say, 'Oh, Fred's back in jail again.' It was really an amazing place to be. You used to smoke cigarettes right in the classroom, right at the table. That's gotta come out in your art."
And to ask Mark Mulley, a Buffalo photographer who owns and books the College Street Gallery, Madden's work is "pretty hardcore" but not enough to push it into inaccessibility.
"I think there's an audience for just about anything, but I think when people come in, they can immediately recognize the craft it takes to do what he does," Mulley said.
A great deal of Madden's work consists of intricate pen-and-ink drawings featuring contorted faces or other anatomical parts, screaming nuns or apocalyptic landscapes replete with abstract figures and twisted objects evoking the surrealists as much as dark figurative painters like his professed influences Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon.
As much of a vagabond as Madden was in his younger days in North Buffalo, he has been on the up and up for more than 20 years. He now works as a GED counselor, plays jazz guitar in the Rochester group X Planet ID and has two children of his own -- both honor students, he pointed out. He credits his early teachers, both in Buffalo and later at Brockport State College, where he graduated summa cum laude, with opening his mind to new ideas and fostering his artistic talents.
"Suddenly, I was pulled out of the closet, and all these lights started going on for me, and I was like, 'I'm not going to end up in these neighborhoods,' " Madden said. "And I got out."
WHAT: "The Twisted World of Sean Madden"
WHEN: Opens today and runs through July 29
WHERE: College Street Gallery, 244 Allen St.
INFO: 882-9727 or collegestreetgallery.tripod.com/collegestreet.htm