Mark Enger (1963-2011)

by Dan Riffe


The brothers were opinionated and brutally honest. The two of them together was sometimes overwhelming. When they talked it could be with a rapid intensity, producing a torrent of words that, with the twins tag-teaming in conversation, left some feeling verbally punch-drunk. Not that the Engers spent that much time talking—most of their time was spent making art.

The Enger Brothers were intensely creative and worked in many media: sculpture, painting, silkscreen printing, woodcut printing. Early in their artistic career, in spring of 1989, Mark and Matt held a joint show at the IAO gallery in OKC featuring their art along with that of OSU art professor John Hancock. The refreshments served were a somewhat disconcerting mixture of sauerkraut, an unknown variety of meat, unidentifiable bits and excessive amounts of pepper sauce, a combination dubbed “rotten-mouth salad.” The beverages offered were pearl beer bottles with custom Enger-designed woodcut-printed labels with lurid images that aptly illustrated the brand names: Gun Fighter Ale, Whore Monger Brew, etc. The War Hippies, the Enger brothers’ atavistic art-terrorism ensemble, did an unannounced set that electrified gallery patrons.

One of their more exciting art concepts was the idea of the “New West Medicine Show” which was a total vision involving costumes, room-sized murals and props that featured The War Hippies and other like-minded groups—ensembles for which hugeness of sound, ridiculous volume and a quest for musical extremity were distinguishing characteristics. The War Hippies were the centerpiece of the New West Medicine Show.

“The New West [Medicine Show] started when we were four or five years old and has continued for 47 years,” Matt Enger said. Their father, who was an artillery officer, would take the brothers to museums, and Matt remembers seeing western art and Indian artifacts on trips to museums in Oklahoma. “After we moved to New York we realized how cool and unique it was (in Oklahoma). You don’t realize it until you’re gone from there—it’s a very spiritual state though it seems redneck on the outside. People don’t try as hard to be hip there.”

The Medicine Show was like an old west Nuremberg rally, cowboy-booted desert rats lost in a datura trip—psychedelic televisionaries meets the Italian futurists, but with brighter lights and louder amps. Highly ritualized but chaotic, a War Hippies performance could polarize an audience so that some were in an ecstatic frenzy and others were merely afraid.

During the Medicine Show years, the Engers were living in Stillwater but had many friends in Tulsa.  They were very involved in the underground scene of the day. They designed the ubiquitous “exploding buffalo skull” shirts, which reflected their obsessions with old west Americana, native America and its art, the Confederacy and civil war, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Custer. The ones who wouldn’t bow down. The freaks, the failures, the other. The Engers celebrated a totally American otherness, reveling in and celebrating the dispossessed, the misfit, the outsider.

“The new west idea was all about pop culture, Clint Eastwood, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Civil War,” says Joe Stone, drummer for the War Hippies. “A lot revolved around that and still does.”

Stone and the Engers lived in and shared a studio at sixth and Main in Stillwater, which was the venue for many art shows and musical performances in the late eighties. Prior to that they had participated in a cooperative gallery in Stillwater called, appropriately enough, “Art Gallery” with a logo designed with a generic product’s lettering. The art gallery featured performances by many bands including an early performance of the Flaming Lips.  Matt and Mark’s fascination with the icons and symbology of the old west and the south and the drama and tragedy of their respective legacies was deeply felt from an early age.

After years of partnered projects, it’s hard to think of the Engers as anything but a unit, though they are distinctive personalities and styles. Matt said that it’s as if Mark isn’t really gone.

“I feel like he’s still here in some ways. I feel like he’s inside of me because of our DNA.”  Matt said that he felt such a close connection with Mark that he could finish a painting of Mark’s and sign Mark’s name and it would be Mark’s.

In 1990, the brothers moved to New York and started Exploding Sky Worldwide Studios and then went on to collaborate with Robert Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, Donald Baechler and Josh Harris. They also created an extensive body of their own work, individually and collaboratively.

In May of 2011, the Christopher Henry gallery in New York will hold a showing of the Engers’ brothers work. The show, which was arranged before Mark’s death, will feature a plexiglass case with Mark’s face silk-screened on the top with his signature on the sides. The box will contain his ashes. This is possibly the first time that an artist’s remains will be part of a work in his own exhibition. Mark Enger died in January of 2011, after a prolonged affliction of cancer.