In local art circles he's considered a kind of Goya of the ghetto, a Hieronymous Bosch of the 'hood. This may be less for his technique -- a spare, pop-caricaturish style executed with his own kind of precision -- than for the utter candor with which he depicts the violence, oppression and depravity of the inner-city gangsta lifestyle. Creative persons are usually advised to work with "what you know," and what Roy Ferdinand knows all too well is where he came from: the world of gangs, drugs and those who will do anything to feed their addiction. What Ferdinand paints is just that.
All of which should situate his work within the grand social realist tradition of Courbet and the legions who followed in his wake, but Ferdinand departs from that tradition in certain works that seem to almost celebrate the depravity. Not in the naively pumped-up way that gangsta rap celebrates sub-moronic mayhem, but with unexpected twists of his own. For instance, Freek Show depicts a couple of gangsta dudes on a sofa enjoying the spectacle of a foxy babe, naked on the floor, being intimate with a young Rottweiler. Fortified by her crack pipe, she seems unperturbed by her situation or by how she appears to her appreciatively snickering companions. Beyond the obvious twists of the scene itself, Ferdinand throws another curve ball by making these figures appear not entirely unsympathetic. The dudes on the sofa seem more impish than evil, and the girl displays a stoicism that almost approaches something like dignity in spite of it all. (It is, as Ferdinand might say, a mindf--er.)
Related more in content than in tone, For the Sake of Rock is another twisted scene in which a young boy sleeps on a mattress on the floor as roaches and rats swarm all around him. Just through an open door, crack pipes and sexual favors hold sway, and in this instance, at least, there is no ambiguity; Rock is a cautionary depiction of societal ills in the grand social realist tradition. Equally unambiguous is Esplanade Unsolved, a view of a naked female corpse in a noose hanging from a tree. Blood issues from a variety of wounds in her battered body, as one half-open eye gazes back at us. It could be anyone, but gang graffiti on the wall suggests that this is yet another victim of a deadly demimonde, another lost soul from a crack-house hell realm.
But death and depravity are equal opportunity employers, and there is no dearth of male victims and female potential victimizers here. What can be disturbing is Ferdinand's tendency to glamorize the deadly femmes in question, while equating women with types of guns in images such as First Ms. 380, in which a foxy brown sugar babe lies on her bed in bikini briefs and not much else, as she fondles her pistol. The girl is glamorous and the scene suggests a Gert Town version of Miami Vice, but what does it mean? Is it glamorizing bad stuff, or is Ferdinand empowering women by making them formidable? Much of this can be disturbing, but the ambiguity encourages viewers to think for themselves. The work is powerful and sad, and Ferdinand sometimes seems to be stuck there -- but then, so are we, as long as such conditions exist. Strong stuff.
More twists appear in The Devil and the Bird of Love in the adjacent gallery, a group show about love and the diabolical chaos that it sometimes causes. Heavy on collage and mixed media, it also has its share of mixed messages and mixed results, but it's a nice, light counterpoint to the nearby heaviness. Among the more polished pieces are curator Raegan Robinson's Jewelry Box, a delicately ironic artist's book that functions as a rumination on love's stages. And Jane Batty's cigar box allegories of romance, movie stars, tropical birds and other flighty things are especially eye-catching. The collages and constructions of Mat James and Nicole Geraci are as solidly and intriguingly gothic as always, and Heather Weathers' Furry Dick lives up to its name. But Patti D'Amico's paper retablas (actually iconic paintings based on Mexican lottery tickets) are surprising, elegantly illustrated explorations of the pop-psyche ramifications of El Diablo's machinations. Colorful, illuminating and just the thing for Lent.
- Perhaps the ambiguity of pieces like First Ms. 380 result from the unresolved issues of inner-city life that permeate Roy Ferdinand's work.