Thanks to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein storming the art world in the 1960s, scenes from comic books, graphic novels, and newspaper advertisements don’t look totally foreign in art gallery space. However, animation and illustration are still separated from the serious business of producing “high-brow” art by critics and audience members alike. On exhibit at the Rio Gallery, Under the Influence sees local Utah artists challenge these kinds of social and cultural categorizations and explore animation’s role in their personal artistic developments. In the show, many two-dimensional artists manage to capture the energy and movement of cartoons and comics with well-executed compositions, color pairing, and line quality. The exhibit’s accompanying text summarizes the artists’ goals well, saying, “Under the Influence harnesses the joyful and whimsical stylistic elements unique to the animation genre. The profound impact of animation on these artists and contemporary culture merits recognition and celebration.”
In his colorful and kinetic landscapes, curator and featured artist Jason Jones channels Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss). Many of Jones’ paintings are landscapes, but animation’s influence has infused them with brightness and dynamism often missing from the traditional genre’s tranquil scenes. “Mystery Woods” is an acrylic painting on board with dominant purples in the foreground, playfully tilting trees, and a light-green sky. The wood’s complementary and cartoon-y palette create a nostalgic scene for people who grew up on Chuck Jones’ Bugs Bunny and Dr. Seuss’s books. In “Epic Tornado,” the sweeping shape of trees and bushes being sucked into a vortex show a landscape that’s a whirl of energy. The composition and colors in Jones’ pieces borrow from cartoons to bring unique energy to Rio Gallery’s walls.
Another featured artist, Trent Call, creates layered acrylic paintings with huge, grinning (or grimacing) faces, suggested with precise, intersecting lines. His “Parlay Party” is one of the first pieces Under the Influence’s visitors encounter. At first, it’s hard to detect where animation comes into the careful layers of acrylic paint and coordinated red, yellow, blue, and teal shapes in front of you. Stepping back, a wide-eyed face pops from the canvas like a nearly-painted-over graffiti tag on a city street. The clean lines and precise design of this piece and others, like “A Day in a Life,” look like single frames of animated films that, while suspended in mid-motion, still retain their manic energy.
Some artists in Under the Influence, like Evan Jed Memmott, use animation’s classic media of ink or paint on paper, but also experiment with less-common techniques. In addition to his layered screenprints like “Watch Your Step,” in which he uses repeated figures in bright colors and Roy Lichtenstein-esque dots, Memmott also presents animation-inspired works on wood skateboard decks. “Eventually” is an oblong piece of wood that has been burned with a metallic point and stained to create a wobbly, interlocked pattern of green, yellow, and brown. Because this skateboard’s design was not mass-produced like most skateboard decks, “Eventually” pays homage to great skateboard designers, and because the piece looks like it could never be used without being destroyed, “Eventually” also seems at home in the gallery — a place typically reserved for “one of a kind” type of art. The contrast between unique and mass-produced skateboard designs puts Memmott’s wood pieces at the intersection between ubiquitous, disposable art and one-off artisan craft.
Together, many pieces in the show ask questions about how painterly or artisan techniques help define “fine art.” Another question that crops up in several pieces in Under the Influence is whether mechanical repetition (like printing or copying) lessens the individual or unique impact of an image, or if it can be used (as in film) to create the appearance of energy and movement. All these questions factor into how animation, illustration, and other forms of art are defined and regarded by our culture as a whole. The show brings together local artists who comment on these issues with their artistic practices in fresh and engaging ways.
“Under the Influence: Eight Local Artists Influenced by Animation”: Rio Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Sept. 1.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.