“I guess I need more blood on the banana,” says cartoonist Nicole Hollander. She’s inspecting one of the tiny plastic murder weapons she’s assembled in an art piece made out of an old set of printer’s drawers. Its title, The Case of the Errant Playboy, is painted in handwriting familiar to readers of her syndicated comic strip, Sylvia.

The drawers slide open to reveal other miniature weapons, most of them dabbed with red acrylic paint. It’s a game of Clue as it might be played in Hollander’s mind: a golf club, a single shoe, a glove, a smashed piece of pottery, an overturned table and candelabrum. The banana is placed in a drawer next to a torso and a bloody brick.

“I hope this isn’t gruesome,” she says.

Perhaps the victim slipped on the banana?

She seems open to the scenario: “You know, that could happen. It could be an accidental death.”

Hollander pulls open another drawer, revealing a blood-tinged frying pan. “Here’s another way of killing someone: feeding them bacon and eggs. And if that isn’t quick enough, you hit them with the skillet.”

She seems surprised by the grimness of this work. Even the mysteries she reads are relatively tame. “I don’t like them to be really bloody,” she says. “I wouldn’t read one with this much blood in it.”

Blame it on an active imagination, evidenced by the 15 or so three-dimensional multimedia tableaux and constructions in her first solo exhibit, which opens next week at Artemisia Gallery. Long fascinated by houses and their individual personalities, she began buying and then making miniature models a few years ago, drawing on her training as a painter to color the wood surfaces. Her first effort was a house that seems to harbor a secret: the exterior is painted white with smears of red, and the red figure of a motorcyclist sits frozen in motion before a single red illuminated window. “It’s like something has happened in that house,” Hollander says. “It’s very scarred looking.”

Since then she’s used cages, boxes, and cakes as backdrops upon which to create her odd tableaux. Though humor is evident, a darker undercurrent runs through many of the pieces. In Barbie Sees Something Bad at the Beach House, the plastic doll returns home to find her seaside cottage (made out of a woven purse) invaded by lizards and skeletons. In Good Neighbor and Bad Neighbor, a pair of houses is fronted by the scene of a tiny plastic woman hanging laundry, oblivious to the two tigers who have decided to pay her an unneighborly visit.

Hollander scavenges at junk stores, garage sales, and hobby shops for figures and toys to serve as actors in her three-dimensional stories as well as for tables and boxes to use as stages. Then she experiments, like a girl playing a twisted version of dollhouse. In one piece she’s placed a dozen rubber monster finger puppets in a box that squishes their heads when the glass lid is closed. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, this elk and this moose could be looking at them,'” she says. So she positioned a plastic moose and elk to gaze at the creatures under the glass. The piece is called Frozen River With Creatures Being Watched by a Moose and an Elk.

Hollander says she doesn’t want to make too much of the deeper political or social commentary behind her work, but it’s hard not to. Consider her series of cakes (which she learned to ice with plaster herself in a pastry class): Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein puts the monster in a veil atop a triple-tiered wedding cake (“He doesn’t even have to find a bride because he’s both of them,” she says); Wedding Party Table and Lamp depicts a caged wedding party with the figure of a wet nurse presenting the happy couple with a baby (“There’s no waiting–you get married and the baby is already born”); and Taking the Plunge features a line of brides making their way to the top of the cake, only to drop into the shark-infested icing below.

Hollander, who’s divorced, says she was drawn to wedding ceremonies as a phenomenon that’s different from marriage. “If you think about it, it’s an amazing event,” she says. “It may be the only time in your life you’re allowed to dress up in this really very expensive, elaborate costume that is never used again. And everyone gives you presents, and you’re queen of the ball. So, of course, it’s a wonderful thing–it would be a wonderful idea if it didn’t mean that you ended up being married.”

Not all of the wedding pieces present such a loaded view of the ceremony. A cake in the shape of a ziggurat is crowned with the traditional bride and groom: “I decided that they’d been married since right after the war,” Hollander says. “They might have even been that couple that kissed in that famous photograph, and they married, and they keep a piece of their wedding cake in a big freezer in the garage.”

But Hollander’s no closet romantic. As she made the rounds looking for wedding-related paraphernalia, she acquired the figures of a waltzing couple. “The guy behind the counter said to me, ‘Is this instead of getting married?’ And I said, ‘That is a very good observation.'”

The opening reception, with real cake, for Hollander’s exhibit, “Food and Shelter: Cakes, Constructions and Altered Objects,” is from 5 to 8 PM next Friday, January 2, at Artemisia Gallery, 700 N. Carpenter. The show runs through January 31. For information, call 312-226-7323. –Todd Savage

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.