Big Rock Candy Mountain
Roq la Rue Gallery
2316 Second Ave, 374-8977
Through Aug 6.
In the Taschen book Art Now: Artists at the Rise of the New Millennium, the only figurative painters included are John Currin, Richard Phillips, and Elizabeth Peyton. Taschen books aren't necessarily the definitive guide to contemporary art but they do tend to provide accurate snapshots of what curators from around the world are thinking about when they're thinking about art. So, using Taschen as a sort of barometer, the collective curatorial consensus about figurative painting continues to remain narrow—and boring. This same consensus has also seemed to agree on an intentional blindness when it comes to anything happening inside the pages of Juxtapoz magazine. Mark Ryden has received a bit more critical recognition as his work has found its way into museums, but there are countless other painters—such as Isabel Samaras, the Clayton Brothers, Eric White, and Alex Gross—who are doing far more interesting things with the human figure than the artists who've supposedly signaled a return to the figurative in art. Big Rock Candy Mountain, a group show featuring contemporary artists influenced by Southern and Western folk art, offers another context in which to view what's actually happening in figurative art now.
Thomas Huck's intricate woodcuts of scenes from his hometown in Southeastern Missouri are the centerpiece of the exhibition. Huck's work is in the vein of Joe Coleman's hyperrealism, where reality is scarier than fiction and making things up is unnecessary. In an interview Coleman said, "I only paint the things that bother me. The stuff I feel like painting is stuff I have a problem with because I can't make sense of it. The painting orders it, clarifies it, borders it. It puts boundaries on something that is so overwhelming and disturbing to me." Huck paints what bothers him: strange rituals, racist parades, grotesque people. It's a fine line in Joe's Meatgrinder as to whether it's a hate parade or a gay pride parade—the fetishistic details (hoods, blindfolds, knee-high stockings) could swing it either way. I have to hope that other details, like the child sucking on a Sambo lollipop, are in line with Huck's self-described "rural satire" and are exaggerated. The Jolly Guano Brothers Ride Again contains details that are the kind of weird that's hard to make up: two guys riding a Huffy, cow pelvises strapped to their heads with rope, and what look like cauliflower heads in their basket. What else is there to know about Weinermania: The Birth of Frankenskank besides its title?
Jon Langford's portraits of country western luminaries such as Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and the Carter Family have the aged look of hand-painted signs hung and forgotten in the backroom of a rough and tumble honky-tonk. Hobo and tattoo iconography—arrows, diamonds, skulls, and swallows—give the portraits the feeling of country western holy trading cards painted by a disciple. This isn't too far-fetched since Langford is a musician himself (the Mekons, Waco Brothers, and Pine Valley Cosmonauts).
Ryan Greis's sublime Ma and Pa are pinkly painted portraits of the stereotypical hillbillies of the artist's native Kentucky. Part of Greis's hilarious Pooptooth series, Ma and Pa look enough alike that they could be cousins. Gries is plain in his sincerity about the portraits in this series, insisting that he paints what he knows and that, "once what I know dries up, I won't paint anymore." From the looks of it, he's barely begun. Daniel Martin Diaz's Solus Christus and Sensus and John Stonehouse's paintings are more Southwestern and carnivalesque and veer in a different direction than the rest of the show, but each have elements that relate to the rest of the work. Gary Monroe's impressive illustration, Arthur Reaches into the Deep Light, includes a Bible scripture: "They shall take up the serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." It's a fitting metaphor for these and other overlooked figurative artists: The scene is chaotic and sweaty, a tangle of snake handlers fall all over each other, reaching for the light. ■