Art Paul: Kill The Rabbit
Good God!, did it ever fucking multiply; springing forth from the singular mind of the cartilage-crushingly on-the-nose-named Art Paul, who needed a mascot-cum-logo for this eccentric's girly mag, a product, like Paul himself, of the Hog Butcher of the World—when that Lake Michigan wind blows, it blows, baby!—and ended up with an icon, an honest-to-goodness American deity, a long-eared, bow tied rabbit, a lapin a la mode who kept cocked ear bent towards what is comme il faut for the jet age gentleman, who is to sex and a certain cigar-smoke cured, bourbon-splashed, wood-paneled, velvet-touched kind of groomed wolf masculinity what the spider or coyote or raven is to chicanery, arguably the most famous bunny in the world—and here his hare straitens its bow tie, takes a pull off the tumbler, and exhales, in a cloud of fine, fine tobacco smoke, “Not much, doc; what's up with you?”—and an image that would have to be included in any kind of even semi-holistic and honest pastiche of American popular culture, the Playboy bunny!
It has been manifested in a million different inks and mediums, from gloss magazine stock to newsprint to flesh, rendered in rhinestones and sequins and neon tubes, in white and black and pink and a veritable zoo of animal print, looking dapper both soft-core and hard-core, on hats, shirts, sweaters, swizzle sticks, and thongs, across an entire sea foaming with licensing and corporate fornication, hopping—if one can excuse the turn—from one bedfellow to the next like, like … like a goddamn rabbit, one supposes, achieving that absolutely most rare and august of atmospheres wherein a piece of visual art can be both of the commercial sphere—bathing, in filthy lucre and public adoration, for immortality like Báthory—and above it; that bowtied cottontail created a cuniculus to very empyrean itself, and the bunny's enormous brood is both Paul's lasting impact—unfair or not—and lasting curse. – B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor
There is precious little of the Playboy bunny to be seen at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, sequestered as it is to a small television screen near the gallery's entrance, bereft even in the very name of the exhibition, which is Hard Heads, Sweet Knees, Forked Tongues, but may as well read Kill The Rabbit; no, the bunny here is confined to those short, quiet—but absolutely screaming with Art Star power!—screenings of The Man Behind The Bunny: Art of Playboy;” this exhibition is for the art of Art Paul.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is about as much painting, per se, at the UIMA as there are lapins; what little of it there is, however, is roundly excellent, and what one finds in abundance is a painterly expertise with the lowly colored pencil, tool of the commercial and domestic and elementary school artist, which, in Paul's virtuosic hands, redefines itself as expressive and electric a medium as any; Paul's pencils both disguise themselves—couched in luxurious pools of color that resemble oil paints or digital comic book colorings, which one imagines involved driving down the lead until it was little more than a nub—and embrace their unique, airier heather application, the seismograph hand technique employed by everyone who has ever held the magical, and magically approachable, implements.
Paul is of a certain class of artist, among them the Vignellis, Saul Bass, and Jerry Dior, whose works find themselves entrenched on either side of the hotly contested DMZ which separates commercial art, over there, from fine art, over here; Hard Heads is exceedingly—almost self-consciously?—in the camp of the later, so far in fine art, at least in spirit and distance from that universal lagomorph, that it is in the hidden nods—or at least perceived hidden nods—to his commercial heritage that some of the greatest pleasures of the exhibition are found. The aforementioned colored pencil clinic demonstrates, in no small way, the bespoke suite of talents a man who has worked in magazines must acquire; so, too, do his skeleton-less ink drawings, which seem to contain no pencil guides and in their lacking take on a kind of innervating recklessness, the furious and free works of a man who has no desire for the structures and strictures he so wonderfully worked betwixt, and see how he can run across the void? Even the very papers themselves are completely debrided of all uniformity, their spines ripped out; some are plucked like feathers from his sketchbooks, others on pieces of paper of irregular size—one hopes he just plucked them from the trash or the scraps on his desk!—with the frames fitting them like daddy's dress shoes.
The works span decades, running right up into last year, with the blackly funny ink drawings with which Paul ruminates on his advancing age in his sketchbook. Not Seeing, made entirely of one ink line which begins as the gentle tracings of a visage and ends, as it crosses mid-face, as a jagged range clasping the figure's eye, is listed in the catalogue as NFS; one imagines no price could cover the through-line of 90 years. His cursive series, including Studio Still Life Landscape, Using Good Paper, and Cheers, utilize the spaces created by and within the curvilinear forms of our fast-dying written language and creates radiating fiefdoms or color and ensconced prismatic pools; grotesquely fascinating heads and faces dot the exhibition, heads as thumbprints and topographic maps, as pink fleshy faces, as humorous/horrifying caricatures—e.g., the nose adroit poor ludicrous soul of Nose-Reverse Head, whose schnoz swings across his maxilla as if one a hinge—and as mysteriously beautiful apparitions, of which the rich color penciled eyes and lips peeking from ink brume of Eye and Lip Swirl Brushstroke Head are the most mysterious and beautiful.
Oh fuck, the paintings! As promised, the paintings: The paintings are relatively wild, concerned with things like heavily stylized faces with burning chartreuse eyes surfacing from beneath a claret gloam and the powerful, swift, and terrible equine form. It is almost as if, when offered the fine artist's medium, Paul took flight; Running Goddess With Horse is composed primarily of carnation smears with ragged, bloody edges and a cobalt colt, while Running Horse, evocative of Native American art work and looking like ash and clay and animus in a storm cloud.
Carnival Dog, an acrylic on canvas, is the most captivating piece on display. The titular beast, its Cimmerian form—black and bulky as a toro bravo—offset by its orange environs, bears a malformed bovine skull as a mask, its long, soft tongue distending beneath the square-toothed mandible; it calls to mind Guernica as seen by Ralph Steadman, a freak for the cirque Lautrec,a masked animal one imagines is quite capable of tearing a rabbit limb from limb.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at bdavidzarley.com.