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Polynesian rhapsody 

Riding the kitschy wave of the South Pacific

Along with bowling, drive-ins, Vegas and roller derby, tiki culture is one of those old-school cultural phenomena that make hipsters wet themselves with ironic glee. What is it about the tiki? Maybe in our own PC and self-aware age, the idea of our ancestors captivated by the exotic thrills of Polynesian culture just tickles our funny bone.

Beginning in the 1930s with the debut of Hollywood's tiki-themed Don the Beachcomber restaurant and then Trader Vic's, tiki American-style was a convergence of stiff rum drinks such as the tiki-quintessential mai tai, the exotica strains of Martin Denny, kitschy decor and, voila!, superficial access to the "Other" the middle-class seems to continually crave. The trend crested in the 1950s following the return of soldiers from World War II whose travels in the South Pacific trickled down to the culture at large and with the publication of James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific in 1948, the Broadway musical version of Michener's book, South Pacific and Hawaii's entrance as the 50th state of the Union in 1959.

The whole trend died out in the '70s (though typically late-blooming Atlanta's Trader Vic's didn't open until 1976), only to be resurrected by "modern primitive" Gen X hipsters in the 1990s who also felt their ancestors' urge for cave-like watering holes and firewater served with paper umbrellas in hollowed-out coconuts.

Campy, yes, but there is an aesthetic charm to tiki, too -- those crazy totem-pole-like carved heads, the whole thatched-roof hut and Oceania-chic mutation of the mildly ethnic remains an appealing, fantastic break from the mundane.

Wherever tiki love -- old-style or newfangled -- comes from, it is here to stay and has found a new staging ground for its assault on our senses at Alcove Gallery. Owner Chris Warner mounts his exhibitions more like a consummate party boy than a conventional gallery director, bringing in bands and hanging art on every available surface like wallpaper. For his Holiday Tiki Show, Warner has brought the tropical indoors, with grass fronds ornamenting the walls and pedestals and a preponderance of artists getting their tiki on -- or encouraging viewers to -- as with Bryan Cunningham's small paintings offering drink recipes for the "Kon-tiki" and "Zombie." Cunningham's grog-art proves a nice matchup with Jay Rogers' charming digital print "Suffering Bastard" of another Trader Vic's drink giving off hallucinatory vapors like the reefer smoke in an exploitation film poster.

One of the most satisfying works is a girl-spin on the tiki mythos: Nina Friday's flirty, jocular, small paintings in her usual gothic, Margaret Keane style suggest that tikimania may actually be a case of some displaced fertility worship. In "Big Daddy," an outrageously phallic tiki is flanked by two topless hubba-hubba babes, like Hugh Hefner getting down at the Playboy Mansion. In "Tiki Baby," the same tiki icon shifts from boss-man to diapered dwarf, cradled in a pretty woman's arms.

For retro charm, it's hard to beat Derek Yaniger's "The Natives Are Restless," a scrupulously stylized image of a pith-helmeted colonialist being boiled in a primitive's cook pot. And Atlanta artist Joe Peery's large portrait of a bathing beauty on an ameboid-surfboard piece of wood, and smaller paintings of two mandolin-shaped nudes, mimic the kind of artwork you'd expect to find decorating some '50s ladykiller's bachelor pad or classing up a van mural.

Holiday Tiki Show is otherwise mildly disappointing, largely because while some of the artists have stuck closely to the theme, others give evidence common in such group shows -- of just throwing some of their pre-existing work into the mix.

Some definite non sequiturs result, illustrated by the scene, just hours before the show's Friday night opening, of Warner unpacking a box with a last-minute arrival of formerly Atlanta- now Richmond-based artist Matthew Lively's work. Warner wasn't the only one flummoxed by the sculptures of four bread-loaf-size woolly sheep and how to justify their presence amid the grinning wooden tikis and hula dancers.

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