Depictions of men: an emotional landscape

Art Review

January 22, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

Things got a lot more complicated for guys in the aftermath of the women's movement.

After Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem got finished with us, it wasn't enough to be just the strong silent type, or the rebel without a cause, or the stern authority figure.

Suddenly guys had to start exploring their feelings - something only women had to worry about previously.

In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, artist and gallery owner Jeffrey Kent offers his own jocular and highly personal take on the paradoxes, contradictions and inevitable screw-ups that arise when men try to figure out the emotional landscape. His ebullient show at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson is about what it means to be a guy in America today.

Kent, who's better known around town as the founder of Sub-Basement Artist Studios and as an indefatigable impresario, presents a potpourri of mixed-media painting and sculpture that pokes sometimes pointed but mostly gentle fun at what might now seem to be the ludicrously inadequate ideals of masculinity inherited by the boomer generation.

His mock-heroic cast of characters includes cowboys, comic-book superheroes and assorted gangstas and thugs, as well as the occasional utterly demented, gun-toting sociopath who somehow manages to convince himself that God is on his side.

(Regarding the latter, viewers will have to decide for themselves whether he's talking here about Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo or President Bush - or perhaps all the above.)

Kent, a self-taught painter, renders these masculine figures in a savvy, street-wise style of broad, layered brush strokes and turgid color that leaves little room for academic pretentiousness. His hip-hop-inspired draftsmanship owes a lot more to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring than to Leonardo da Vinci and that crowd.

With a few orange squiggles, Kent nails the ridiculously oversized pants worn by a rapper on MTV or the sweaty flanks of a cowboy's horse. His appropriations of superheroes such as Batman and Robin or Spider-Man look just enough like the real thing to give you a start once you realize the text balloons are all lettered in the artist's patient, backwards handwriting. (Well, maybe Kent does owe something to cryptic da Vinci after all.)

In fact, Kent had mild dyslexia as a child, so the backwards writing represents a bit of personal autobiography as well as a signature decorative flourish.

But it's also an in-your-face reminder of the confusion that reigns among men over just who guys are supposed to be in an era in which women seriously run for president - and maybe even win.

When, in one of Kent's comics-based paintings, Batman reluctantly admits his feelings were hurt when another, more famous superhero dissed him, for an instant you feel sorry for the big lummox. Not so much because he's been slighted, but because he's so pathetically unprepared to deal with the fact that he actually has feelings, let alone the mortification that comes from realizing he's not as tough as he thought.

Because it takes a little time to decipher Kent's backwards printing in the text balloon, the painting's meaning unfolds gradually, rather than all at once, as with a traditional comic panel.

As a result, you understand the painting a little bit at a time, in layers, so to speak. Looking at a Kent painting is somewhat akin to peeling back the skin of an onion, which also is how truth usually dawns on us, if it ever does.

All the works in the show have this layered quality, which is what saves them from preachiness or cant. They are, at their core, complex but mostly lighthearted essays on the heady proposition that anything can be art and anyone can be an artist - we can thank feminism for that breakthrough, too - while remaining mercifully indifferent to the suffocating strictures of political correctness.

Mediterranean mood

A companion show in the second-floor gallery presents about two dozen abstract, mixed-media landscapes of Spain and Cyprus by Ruth Pettus.

Pettus spent the summers of 2006 and 2007 in Mieres, an unspoiled Catalonian village in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains near the Spanish Mediterranean coast.

She taught a landscape workshop there for the past two years and used the opportunity to develop a technique based on pastel mixed with mineral oil that gives her diminutive views of the region's luminous sea and sky some of the tactile qualities of wax encaustic.

"Using oil pastel as a traveling medium has the advantage of being easy because you don't have to bring brushes and paints, just a little box of pastels," Pettus says. "If you're in the middle of the Mediterranean, you can even use olive oil."

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