Billy Tokyo: The Shape of Things to Come/John Dempsey: Urban Nature - his amazing light and technicolor flight based on a theme of mysterious and memorable allusions
Currently at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Avenue
Elmhurst, Illinois 60126 thru August 25, 2012
There’s a smart, sophisticated flavour to the sparkling Elmhurst Art Museum, a van der Rohe designed cultural center a short jaunt from the tag team wrestling arangements prevalent in nearby Chicago. And with the current exhibition of John Dempsey (aka Billy Tokyo), the vector of that sophistication has risen even more so. Full of delightful surprises, the show holds no freaky accidents. It steers far from deconsecrating the place.
“The Shape of Things to Come” explodes with color and laughter, inventing its very own reason for being. In case you didn’t know, Billy Tokyo is the alter ego and alias created by Dempsey in 2008. He’d been commissioned to produce illustrations at that time for Chicago’s Cubs baseball team. It’s said many of the pieces on that side of the boulevard are influenced by a form of Japanese Pop Art, with the painter embracing the landscape around him for inspiration.
“I was introduced to Billy’s work through a review by Jeriah Hildwine who was talking about the aftermath of the Art Loop Open show”, shared Aaron Ott, Curator of the Museun. “John’s painting “The Great American Landscape” won the top prize in that show. Hildwine spoke about his feelings about the painting and mentioned in his review the dual personalities of the artist (as Dempsey and Tokyo) and I decided that it was something I should investigate.”
It’s Dempsey’s first museum show, and he handles the tricky terrain with grace and panache, minus the works grasping the reins of the adventure too tightly. Oils of varying sizes dominate the outing. “I've experimented with almost every media imaginable, but I've always come back to oil paint”, he says. “ I want to create the perfect lines in my art, and oil flows off my brush with the consistency and color density I can control. Almost all my paintings are oil on canvas or linen.” He continues, “ Even though my artwork is composed of graffiti-like gestures I don't use any of the media used by the typical outdoor graffiti artist. I'm not a graffiti artist anyway so I guess this makes sense. I'm an oil painter using the visual language of graffiti writing to create my compositions.”
The exhibition is divided, Kantian-esque, with somewhat synthesized applications and structural clarity of Tokyo followed in an adjoining space by the flat yet deep pieces of Dempsey. It’s illuminating, recording scenes from the imagination…some in a more delicate vein…with greys and black exploding in un-predicted spasams of color. The exhibition begs the question how the artist can wrestle with the duality. “I have a large piece in my current show titled "Over the Underpass" that took me, off and on, about a year to complete because I kept changing it. I thought I was finished with it so many times, but when I would come in the studio the next day I would see that it was all wrong and white out whole sections. At one point it had a lot of color in it, which I eventually felt took the element of speed away from it,” adding “You just work on things until they feel right - until it looks like it's how it is suppose to be. There's no real way to define or explain it. But a piece can be overworked which can kill it. I guess that comes with experience - knowing when to say when.”
Dempsey, not at all trapped in a fluid set of influences there are those who have impacted his work. Albert Oehlen plays such a role. “I got a chance to talk to him last year about different ways to lay down lines. He can create lines that seem to change velocities - skillfully creating lines that look fast and slow and mixing bold with real subtle brushwork.” Another, he says is Shinque Smith. “She really introduced graffiti-like gesturento contemporary painting. I'm not talking characters or forms or writing like Basquiat and Keith Haring did, but the loops and swoops of the lines we see in graffiti writing and tagging. She's the only one, besides me, that I've seen that use this approach to create abstract art”. He continued, “She also takes street-found objects and places them in her compositions. She's not afraid to take chances. Her spirit really shows in her work - which looks feminine - which is great. I put one of her lines - a sort of line flair she makes - in my painting "Over the Undss" to pay homage to her and her work.”
“We’ve been trying to lighten the mood at the Museum”, said Ott.” I mean, you know, sometimes art can get very serious, and there’s just an attitude to Tokyo’s work that makes me happy and makes me laugh. But that’s not to say it’s not serious either. His Las Meninas piece is out of control. That thing is really amazing and you kind of have to know a lot about art history and Foucault to really get all the nuances in that painting. And the nuances are hilarious. He winks at history and theory and painting and himself and childhood and wealth and privilege. It’s really a great work.”
When this writer sat down to describe the artist and his work i wrote ‘electrified’…then I began laughing aloud…it’s so more than that. You don’t peel the onion on this…you zen it…or it zens you…and you travel right through to the core and out the other side screaming, ‘hold it…hold it…damnit…talk to me’, and clearly the Curator experienced the similar. “I liked Tokyo’s style, in that I feel like it manages to retain an edge while still being largely approachable, relatively funny, and has a big heart. So I asked for a studio visit”, says Ott. “Studio visits can make or break shows. And his totally made it. He just had a ton of work and was working furiously on new stuff and had an energy that I found very compelling.” Going further, “… maybe it was the right place at the right time for me. I had just read Foucault’s intro to “The Order of Things”, which dissects “Las Meninas”, and the book was in my bag and then all of the sudden I was standing in front of this ridiculous contemporary cartoony investigation of it. The whole thing just felt right. So that’s when I said – ‘Just do whatever you want.’ You know? Like I felt like he had it all totally under control. So then he started doing the wood work, which is also really strong and which is getting a lot of attention, rightly so. But that is all brand new to his studio practice.”
I’ve remained in a giddy ballet with the artist’s work to date and eager to explore if there’s anything out there yet to leave us breathless. “I'm starting to create my two dimensional compositions into 3 dimensional sculptures. I'm cutting wood to look like my graffiti-style compositions and really want to get big, complex and tight with them. I want the viewer to get their eyes really tangled in them. I have a sculpture tilted "Wicker Park 2005", that is really the start of it. It hangs from the wall, but looks like it's flying out. I want to take that idea but expand it by fifty or so pieces that interconnect and go to the ground and come up at you. I like my work to get in peoples faces - and I want to do that physically with these new sculptures I'm working on.”
Ott holds,“ Tokyo’s pretty much at the top of his game and still ascending right now. It’s fun to watch.” With Dempsey promising, “For the most part my paintings have been very clean and crisp, but the new compositions I'm working on are more dense and textured with rougher graffiti-like lines and a more dangerous visual language. I'm adding flakes of charcoal into the oil paint to add a feeling of grit. I'm starting to make them a bit grungier. I want to get dirtier with them. I want to walk down that the dark alley.”
We have an artist involved with ideas here, and whether ordered or measured we would do well to follow his work and explore them as their central questions evolve.
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