Spirit Moves Him

With bold strokes, artist Dan Keplinger, aka 'King Gimp' shares strength and beauty in his first local solo exhibit.

February 21, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The self-portrait takes up nearly the entire space behind the display window at Fleckenstein Gallery in Towson. It shows the head of a bearded young man with intense dark eyes, rendered in an agitated, expressionist style that seems almost abstract until you meet the artist.

His name is Dan Keplinger, and he is sitting just inside the front door, patiently waiting for a photographer to snap his picture.

Seeing him, one notes the same dark hair and intense eyes, but now one also senses how well the agitated quality of the painting captures the physical reality of the person.

Keplinger has been afflicted since birth with cerebral palsy, a condition that deprives its victims of control over the movements of their bodies and cruelly isolates them from the world.

Keplinger cannot really hold still for the camera; his slight frame seems to obey a will of its own, expressed in small, incessant bobbing motions of his head, torso and limbs.

It's hard for him to speak because he can't modulate his voice in conversation. He needs a motorized wheelchair to get around, and it is only with great difficulty that he manages to shake hands in greeting a reporter who arrives.

But in paint, Keplinger can express himself perfectly. In paint, he can show the world who he is, can show the quick-witted individual inside the flawed body who thinks about things and feels deeply about them, who cracks jokes and falls in love, who can look into the deepest parts of himself without pity or fear and find something beautiful there.

Keplinger's struggle to become an artist despite his crushing disability was memorably recounted in Baltimore filmmakers Susan Hannah Hadary and William A. Whiteford's 2000 movie King Gimp, which won an Oscar for best short documentary that year.

The movie led to two solo New York shows for Keplinger at New York's Phyllis Kind Gallery in 2000 and 2002. His third solo New York show opens there Feb. 28. And today his first solo show in Maryland, where he grew up, opens at the Fleckenstein Gallery in Towson.

"Most people think of a `gimp' as a cripple," Keplinger says in the film, which was shot over a 14-year period during which Keplinger attended a state school for disabled children, Parkville High School and Towson University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1998. "I think of a gimp as a fighting spirit."

There are 13 paintings, etchings and mixed-media works on display in the Fleckenstein Gallery, all of which in one way or another reflect on the artist's experience as someone on the outside looking in.

Sometimes, it is the artist who stands outside his own body and regards it clinically, as in Bair II.

The painting's title is a combination of two words, "body" and "chair," and it depicts a tangle of limbs, wheels and metal parts that poignantly expresses the artist's utter inseparability from the wheelchair in which he spends much of his life.

Self X (No I'm Not Up), the painted self-portrait in the gallery's front window, "was from a picture of me my friend took when everything was happening with the [documentary]," Keplinger says. "It shows how tired I was; that's why it's called `I'm Not Up.'"

In Some Bum, Keplinger surveys the plight of a homeless person, rendered in slashing, heavily impastoed brush strokes, and sees "someone who is separate from the world around them" - perhaps a surrogate for an artist who knows all too well what that feels like.

"People can understand [my paintings] because they can see they are about emotions and how people feel," Keplinger explains. "People can tell the different emotions."

Keplinger learned to paint in high school, using a brush attached to a helmet on his head that allowed him to mix his pigments and apply them to canvas or paper by moving his neck and shoulders. He learned to use a computer the same way, attaching a round dowel to the top of his helmet and tapping out words on the keyboard by bobbing his head up and down.

Since filming for the movie ended, Keplinger has been working hard, participating in half a dozen group exhibitions around the country in addition to his New York solo shows.

In 1999, he enrolled in a graduate program in desktop publishing at the University of Baltimore, and last year he earned a second bachelor's degree in art from Towson (his first degree was in mass communications).

He's also traveled through Europe with a friend and starred in a 2001 commercial for Cingular Wireless that was broadcast during the Super Bowl.

One of the high points of his life was meeting artist Chuck Close, who attended the opening of Keplinger's first show in New York.

"It was cool because he knew I was a big fan of his," Keplinger recalls. "[But] the only time I saw him was when they were taking pictures of us, so I didn't get a chance to talk to him a lot."

And while Keplinger is passionate about his work, he also knows how to play.

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