After years of hearing about this gallery and admiring the artist roster from afar, I finally got to visit the David Lusk Gallery this past weekend. The two current shows, by artist Mary Sims and artist Tyler Hildebrand are great examples of the effectiveness of seeing art in person, as opposed to viewing online photographs of art. First, seeing the materials in both shows had a much greater impact on my perception and interpretation of the work. Second, viewing the work in person allows the size of the pieces, which are for the most part larger than life, to impact the viewer’s feelings and alter the relationship between the viewer and the presented figures.
The vibrant work of Mary Sims (1940 – 2004) combines what appear to be conflicting images, mythology and historical references in the current show “Zuma and the Bible.” There is a tension between people, and perhaps between races, as figures appear to be either dominant or subservient in each composition. Religious iconography appears, such as the yellow halo (seen above in “Dream a Little Dream”) but the woman stares boldly out at the viewer, changing the mood from holy to defiant, as if she were being forced to dress up as an angel. Each painting contains multiple pointing devices moving our eye round and round, which is helpful, as there are details to discover with each rotation. For example, I initially somehow missed the tiny people at the feet of the woman in “Her Daddy Gave Her Magic” (below) and my awareness of the little figures completely changes my perception of the large central figure.
These paintings are full of tension and contrast: the rich colors contrast the messages of indulgence, power and dominance; the intricate patterns and fabrics reference multiple cultures; the clothing within each painting indicates various periods of time (see the Egyptian head dresses with the garter belt and high heels below); and the strange interaction between animals and humans is at times comical as well as disturbing (see the little dog in “Ship of Fools” below). Viewing the paintings of Mary Sims is a way to feel simultaneously uncomfortable, bewildered and mischievous. These are each works one could spend a lot of time with, as if the paintings could change and grow with a viewer. As an artist, creating imagery that prompts discovery and rediscovery for a viewer is a personal goal and is one that Sims achieves with provocative panache.
Tyler Hildebrand, an artist based in Cincinnati, delights, surprises and then disarms viewers with his show, “Granny Whitey: New Paintings, Drawings & Film.” The tone is set upon entrance to the gallery with actual shag carpet covering the floor and the presence of an old television, chair and full ashtray in the center of the gallery space. Visitors immediately know that we are trodding in someone’s memories of 1970s Americana.
Many of the paintings combine some type of consumption to the point of harm with a comical edge. Perhaps it is the presence of a child like drawn line that gives the pieces a certain humor and light mood. Additionally, most of the paintings are on found objects such as imperfect cardboard and old Dunkin Donuts boxes. But then the thick, bludgeoned, and sometimes bleeding bodies present a dark element. All of the figures are distorted with either enormous, elongated necks or no necks at all and bulbous bodies that seem to expand in uncomfortable proportions. It is as if the heads (our brains) are shrinking and the bodies are expanding causing the gross destruction of ourselves and each other. As I reflect back on the paintings, my smile at the quirky details fades and I realize how many of the pieces have hitting, bleeding, and fighting. For example, there are multiple images of guns, in collage style application or childish drawings. See the piece titled “Bowie” (here to the right): why does the man in bed have a machine gun? And what to make of “Wastin Away Again” (below)? Hildebrand provides these hints: the figure is too big for the enormous canvas, he has a tiny angry face much too small for his body, he holds a TV remote, and there is an empty speech bubble.
My intention was to write more about the materials, such as pieces of scrap paper imbedded in the paintings, but the drawings and paintings on top of the found papers and materials dominates my response to the work. And finally, it occurs to me. Hildebrand is able to tackle a topic which I tried and failed* in my own work during an assignment in grad school: the portrayal of American consumer culture and what we are doing to ourselves physically and intellectually as we embrace fast food and immediate gratification. Perhaps because of my own preexisting interest in the topic, I am prone to see these themes in the work of Hildebrand. But the more I consider the details the artist presents (text such as “Where’s my Playstation?” and images of Waffle House, Cracker Barrel, beer cans, cigarettes, and violent acts when the figures don’t get what they want), the more I realize the brilliance of Hildebrand’s images and style. He doesn’t preach to us, he simply lures us in with a childlike technique that initially seems fun and light-hearted. However, stay a moment and consider the details – the visual hints such as blood and brand names – and the fun, youthful approach serves as bait luring the viewer’s thoughts to something pervasive and dark.
Now that interstate construction is improving, I look forward to visiting the David Lusk Gallery for future shows. If they are a fraction as provocative as the work of Mary Sims and Tyler Hildebrand, it will be well worth the easy drive from Little Rock to Memphis.
Lately, I’ve shared museum and gallery experiences in this blog. For the next entry in early March, I’ll write about my own recent body of work and will report on how the opening night lecture goes. For now, I better run put the finishing touches on “An Italy Experience: Reflections on Past and Present” scheduled to open Feb. 28 at Boswell Mourot Fine Art. Thanks for reading!