Pop art used to be fun, perhaps because its deeper meaning was its utter meaninglessness, which you could take any way you wanted. But then came postmodern neo-pop, which was more pointed in its "critique" of meaningless consumer culture, but sometimes only added to the noise level. At first blush, that description might seem to fit John Davis's neo-pop mixed-media pieces at Ferrara as well, but look again because Davis has taken the anti-noise measure of whiting out the dialogue bubbles on his comic strip collages until they are utterly empty. Where dramatic exclamations once ruled, silence now prevails.
But could this also be noise of a sort, as in visual noise? Au contraire, opines Davis, who says it's all about suburbia and its emptiness, and that "the act of whiting out suggests a form of meditation ... a hint of empty mindfulness as an alternative to an overload of cultural stimuli." Which sounds for the most part like the usual graduate school jive, but there may be more to it than that.
White Out Painting 10 is emblematic, an elaborate montage of comic strip panels cobbled into a series of wordless mini-dramas. Here the dramatic action, sans text and context, allows us to savor how visually intriguing comic strip art can be, while reducing it to a kind of pop calligraphy, like theatrical runes or dramatic hieroglyphs. The cartoon panels suggest collective daydreams; with the narrative text removed, the images become detached melodramas floating suggestively as clouds in the sky.
Another series features elaborately whited-out pages of text, suggesting a therapeutic retraction of some of the all-too-many words that have been uttered since the dawn of time. Another is comprised of jigsaw-puzzle pictures painted white to suggest a Zen paradox of the "sound of one hand clapping" variety. Davis employs a kind of deadpan slapstick to proffer his own brand of post-postmodern neo-pop with a subtle punch.
Jeffrey S. Forsythe's paintings and cut-paper collages on the adjacent walls also arise from academic postmodern notions of "deconstruction" and other "paradigms." Essentially, Forsythe's images reflect a high-concept pairing of Japanese ink drawings and bland American how-to manuals from the 1950s, but if they sound like total opposites, they're not. Both typically take the form of line drawings, and Forsythe further accentuates the parallels by focusing on a breezy theme: sailing.
Epitomizing the bland American tech manual approach is an acrylic triptych: To die will be an awfully big adventure. Here, in each of the three panels, the simply drawn outline of a child in a life jacket illustrates proper and improper ways to float. (On your back is good; face down in the water is not.) Below each illustration is the form of a sailboat rendered so simply it could have been made by a stencil. How To is a diptych; each cut-paper illustration features a small sailboat. In one, the sails are slack but the rudder and centerboard are in their proper places. In the other, they are floating out to sea, and the boat itself seems to be coming apart as well, taking matters to a morbid extreme. Yet, because it's all so simplistically rendered, the net effect is oddly whimsical.
So Far So Good is more like a typical Japanese ink drawing of misty mountains, green fields and a skiff on a placid sea. Up close, the guy in the skiff looks occidental, so maybe it's only Walter Anderson taking his boat to Horn Island. The marriage of East and West is consummated, however, in The Masters, a line drawing of four young folks in a sailboat demonstrating the best way to balance the vessel when tacking against the wind. Never mind that no sail is present, it's pseudo-instructional yet whimsical, as subtle as warm sake. Any stylistic marriage of vintage Popular Mechanics and vintage Japanese scroll paintings is necessarily going to be a little tricky, but here Forsythe finds common ground in the shared minimalism. And if the words "minimal" and "whimsical" only rarely appear together in public, they seem almost comfortable with each other in this case. While unresolved stylistic loose ends remain, Forsythe's latest efforts are often unexpectedly intriguing, occasionally almost sublime.
- This detail of White Out Painting 10 illustrates how John Davis transforms comic strip panels into montages reminiscent of silent daydreams and wordless mini- dramas.