Weekend at Wolfy's

ROB DEWALT for Pasatiempo

"This is a shrine for you, you are the light in the fixture, please accept nourishment as an offering for being here." So reads one of the scrawled messages to be discovered while taking in the cavernous riches of Habitats, the latest and most ambitious group installation to date by Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf. Approximately two-thirds of the group's 2,000-square-foot interior at the corner of Second and Hopewell streets (as well as part of the art space's parking lot) has been transformed into a miniature theme park for the eyes, ears, and imagination -- a choose-your-own-adventure experience for all ages, cobbled from cloth, feathers, mud, straw, video projections, found objects, knickknacks, and keepsakes.

After an eight-week planning and construction period, more than 20 Meow Wolf artists have created a walk-through/crawl-through/climb-through exhibit that demolishes the white-cube sentiment of artwork viewing. If you wish to witness something beyond the smell of directional light bulbs frying the surfaces of fresh paint -- or if groping a sculpture has ever led to your physical ejection from a gallery -- make your way to Habitats before it comes down in late July. And if you want to meet the artists responsible for this remarkable, ever-evolving work, that shouldn't be too difficult. Some of them have taken up residence within the installations.

Upon entering the dimly lit space, viewers are faced with a number of options. To the right, a blue wooden ladder leads to a nestlike loft enclosure filled with hay and colored feathers. A small screen in the corner broadcasts punk-rock documentaries and other videos relating to the resident artist's intent. Mateo Garcia, 35, has adorned this self-described "Eagle's Nest" habitat with individual works; a large-scale painting of Kratos, a character from the video game God of War; and art-making materials, including a box of paint tubes. Written on the box in crude black brush strokes Brush Strokes was an Esmonde and Larbey sitcom set in South London and depicting the (mostly) amorous adventures of a good-looking, wisecracking house painter, Jacko (Karl Howman). is an urgent reminder: "Paint. Now."

The immediacy of that statement resonates through the main entrance, which, at first glance, looks and feels like the entryway of an unfinished, post-apocalyptic "It's a Small World" kiddie ride. Colors, shapes, and textures collide, but they imply a symmetry of thought among participating artists that suggests they are deeply invested in transforming Meow Wolf's space as a collective while still maintaining their creative autonomy.

It's not an easy task, especially without a clear curatorial hand. Have you ever tried to herd cats?

Leave it to Meow Wolf to prove that it can be done. What looks like a free-for-all on the surface gives way to focused meditations on personal space, connected to one another with a refreshing abruptness and complete lack of pretension.

Three vertical levels of individual habitats are at your disposal, each of them marked alphabetically for the delivery of mail and, presumably for ease of tracking down lost children and overwhelmed adults. (You could, of course, just scream and wait for someone to reach you.) After putting yourself in the mind-set of a hamster traversing a Habitrail designed by M.C. Escher, Tim Burton, Yoda, and Bilbo Baggins, you make your way underground and ceiling-high. There are no road maps or glowing arrows to guide you. Besides the occasional point of a finger by a participating artist, it's hurly-burly all the way -- and worth every awkward step, scrape, and head-bump.

Down a proverbial rabbit hole and through a mirrored room you go, with your image projected onto a cloth screen behind you. Shrines and altars abound, as do thatched roofs, tile and kaleidoscopic glass mosaics, more feathers, projectors, Christmas lights, looped audio, cloth swatches, pillows, and scrap wood. It's a tactile Shangri-La, if that's as far as your imagination will take you, but closer inspection reveals intimate details about the artists. The way a window is framed, the objects left behind in what is presumably a bed, an open drawer, a photograph, a color scheme, a pencil drawing -- there are secrets on (and buried within) these temporary walls.

Beneath a huge tree in Meow Wolf's parking lot, artist Caity Kennedy sits in her habitat sharing conversation and a snack with her friend Sarah Bradley. Overhead, gathering thunderheads burst at the seams. Rain comes down in buckets and drenches the "roof" of Kennedy's enclosure: a twist of bed sheets and blankets shaped like an inverted funnel cloud and anchored by a crude wooden base filled with cushions and fabric. Lightning illuminates the dark corners of the Meow Wolf warehouse some 30 feet away. "You know," I say to Kennedy, "I'm pretty sure people aren't supposed to be near big, isolated trees during a storm with lightning strikes." Kennedy and her companion shrug silently, and I head back indoors to escape the deluge -- and to make one more trip through the maze of habitats.

How many of us truly ponder a work of art when we're in a gallery or museum, feeling rushed and perhaps more scrutinized than the work itself? Habitats offers equilibrium, an art-world purgatory where we're all crawling through the same beautiful mess together, lost either in wonder or frustration, secretly hoping that our mobile phones, sunglasses, and egos make it out of the gallery unscathed. I have never left an art exhibit simultaneously bleeding, aching, half-weeping, smiling, screaming inside, and drenched in sweat. And before, I might have considered that a bad day. Now, however, I'm wondering why I should continue to settle for anything less.