Kelly Detweiler: Playful, Contemplative, Satirical
The art of Kelly Detweiler is entertaining and boldly colorful, a post-modern mix of a native drawing style and borrowed elements from art history and pop culture. Detweiler leads us through strange and uncomfortable incidents, amusing social blunders, personal fantasy adventures, cultural breakdowns and meditative moments. We can determine a lot about the dialectic of this artist’s journey by noting the contrast in his treatment of interiors and landscapes, everyman and the big powers in our lives, the battle of the sexes, the natural and the artificial. Equally important is the constant conversation Detweiler maintains between his art historical heroes and himself.
For Detweiler, Picasso and Cubism seem to serve to describe the ongoing drama of a life with uncertain meaning and out of control. He gets a lot of mileage from the angularity and angst of cubist forms. In many of his narrative encounters there is a woman whose multifaceted face suggests greater than average complexity, armor and impenetrability, inexplicable emotions, tragic history, deception and (oh, yes) desirability. She probably wears a little Picasso-esque chapeau, and may be impossibly wrapped around herself with multiple sets of arms, as well. A tortured cubist treatment of certain animals and plant forms carries Detweiler’s critique on to the “natural” world. Even his still lives borrow forms such as a section of picture frame and angular unnatural plant forms from cubism.
Detweiler’s still lives move through the historic sequence of making a painting from a still life in three dimensions (or imagining a 3-D still life for a painting) to the reverse – making three-dimensional still lives from the history of painting (including incestuous revisiting of his own paintings for material). His paintings have a lot of fun with the early modernist approaches to still life – again Matisse and the Cubists – but adding a personal narrative with animals, faces and forms that are familiar to his viewers. His 3D versions draw from those paintings, his own paintings, Modernist ready-mades and found objects, with a boldly colorful Funk application of paint. The results recall a lot of Joseph Cornell.
For the viewer who observes closely, there are a lot more humorous art-historical parodies and playful one-liner walk-on figures from art history to entertain us. Detweiler repeatedly celebrates and revisits favorite paintings and artistic movements. They stick with Detweiler and have gotten mixed up with his own cast of evil and angelic cartoon characters: little devils of temptation, watchers, fools and alter egos. Some are in recognition of individual artists from his experiences in the Davis art world -- heroes like Roy de Forest, Jim Nutt. Others are a loving homage to a special painting or figure from art history going all the way back to the Renaissance. What painting of the Rennaisance has more caustic things to say about human foolishness than Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights? Another of Detweiler’s favorite Bosch paintings is “The Conjurer” and so Detweiler’s adventures in nature recall the utterly lost figures of Heironymus Bosch.
And what could be more fun than the wicked sense of humor of 16th Century court painter, Giuseppi Arcimboldo who offered an early satire of still life painting and portraiture? His paintings of self-important people that on closer inspection revealed a weave of plants, vegetables and animal matter, were an outrageous critique of wealthy people who collected bound books that were status symbols yet were never read. Could Detweiler’s series of sculptural heads, constructed out of numerous small found objects, and painted in a rich pattern of bold colors, wish to protest art collectors that fail to really understand the artwork they collect?
A fixation on faces can be seen in relationship to the work of James Ensor. Ensor’s painting, Christ Entering Brussels, is Ensor’s fictitious gathering of both hostile and welcoming characters representing, in garish masked faces, the political, social, artistic and bizarre forces he saw arrayed against the trajectory of reason in Ostend, Belgium. Ensor’s own likeness is seen partially in the depiction of Christ, and it was of course a travesty that made the painting unacceptable in its own time. Yet Ensor was a social and political critic, an artist of fierce independence and stylistically way ahead of his time in his daring mix of numerous stylistic treatments in one work. Often he depicted himself with a respectful realism and the rest of the world in contemptuous caricature. In Self Portrait (After Ensor), Detweiler paints himself, in an Ensor-like crowd, surrounded by the likenesses of his own rich world of believable and imaginary characters. Picasso’s bull from the Guernica accompanies Rat Fink, a female with a “brown-nose” (estilo Jim Nutt), dogs and deer, and many original Detweiler cartoon characters and everyday folks. This is Detweiler’s crazy and bewildering world to deal with, in his albeit much gentler way. The narrative is an everyman’s journey through rural to urban life, social situations, domestic relationships, art history, political epochs, and crises. The artist is again seen immersed in and dreaming of his own world and self-made cast of characters in Dreamer, and in The Nap, where the female in the foreground ponders his secret slumber world. On sabbatical to live and paint in Florence for a year, Detweiler took afternoon naps that his wife could not understand. He recalls, I told her, ’I’m working. I’m thinking up stuff.’ “
Other important and influential arty characters left their stamp on Kelly Detweiler in the course of his graduate work. On the heels of some high profile Northern California contributions to Abstract Expressionism, Bay Area Funk became Northern California’s own unique stylistic reaction to the self-important existentialist AE art of the previous generation. A lot of the power hitters of this funny, self-effacing, silly-serious movement came out of the Sacramento/Davis area of California and spread their influence around the San Francisco Bay and on to Chicago and beyond. Kelly Detweiler graduated with an MFA from UC Davis in 1977, at the height of all that fun.
Detweiler, as a child of the Pop generation that defiantly embraced previously scorned sources of imagery, acknowledges popular, youthful, and comic influences such as Pop Eye, Big Daddy Roth’s Rat Fink character, and the large body of Walt Disney entertainment art on his work. His graduate school role models were historic characters like Robert Arneson, Roy de Forest, David Gilhooly, William Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, R. Crumb, Jim Nutt , Peter Saul, and Gladys Nilsson who reigned in the Davis milieu. There, Detweiler drew encouragement for his native cartoon-like, outlining, drawing style and found affirmation for his own quirky world-view.
After Voulkos, the ceramics of Gilhooly, Arneson (and a whole new generation of ceramic artists) saw way beyond the vessel, allowing ceramic sculpture to become witty, humorous, and satirical. Kelly was one of many talented young artists to begin sculpting clay with new attitudes. Then, though his closest mentors at UC Davis were Arneson and de Forest, Detweiler credits a sensitive critique with Wayne Thiebaud for drawing his attention to important subtle attributes of his painting and drawing. Detweiler recalls, “Wayne Thiebaud was a sweetheart, a very humble human being. When he said ‘ I think you ought to do more of these’, it had a tremendous influence on me”. Detweiler began to focus his attention on the pictorial, putting sculptural forms on the backburner, at least temporarily.
Since joining the faculty of Santa Clara University in 1982, Kelly Detweiler has been an amazingly prolific artist, doodling and drawing incessantly, collecting objects and images for inspiration, creating found-object sculpture, collecting printed images for collages, and working from small to large on paper and canvas. For any given length time his work may focus on a single subject and approach to form, and then it disappears for a while. About series and evolving ways of working, Detweiler says, “Like a lot of artists, I come back to an idea, a series, again much later -- then I can edit. I am a fairly impatient painter, I work so much unconsciously, but I am a lot more aware of craft now. The bigger paintings take a lot of time. I have to have a drawing I can believe in.”
In spite of years spent as Chair of the Department of Art, Detweiler confesses to having been “bored stiff” in faculty meetings, and to allowing himself the distraction of constant doodles. Though the early Detweiler works were done quite spontaneously without advance sketches, somehow that stream-of-consciousness imagery -- the doodles – have become the stuff of preliminary drawings for the larger works in his later modus operandi. It seems the artist who increasingly savors craft but still likes to work “unconsciously” has gained that critical conscious insight into his own iconographic predilections, passions and persona that comes with a long and productive career. This can certainly be seen in the new works of 2013 where Detweiler revisits favorite themes and has new surprising outcomes.
When Kelly Detweiler came to California from Colorado he left “an idyllic environment” with an unspoiled outdoors, wild nature, animals, and aspen trees in the back yard. The landscape paintings, starting as early as 1993, have a deceptively serene cast of characters: the grand mountains, rolling foreground hills, well groomed evergreen and deciduous trees, boulders, sky and clouds, bold and elegant colors with the skies, in particular, distinguishing possible interpretations. Paintings like Clearing and Big Thicket, with their clear blue skies, are nostalgic and idealized gazes eastward toward the memory of a Colorado with sparse populations, clean air, untouched natural views, and perhaps innocence and childhood play. In Thicket of 1993, the scene is more specific -- like a recurring child’s dream, with elements of the forest coming alive under an evening sky, the piled rocks tilting like ceremonial dancers and the aspens standing as staid sentinels. Detweiler further acknowledges that soothing association with memory-of-place in Poet’s Grove, with its green glowing sky. In Orange Sky, Detweiler allows a more unsettling look into the ambiguous orange glow of a sunrise, or is it a forest fire, an apocalypse? In the context of Detweiler’s larger body of work, it is fair to be wary, because the landscape moves toward a suggestion of innocence lost.
Mammals enter the forest, and nature steps back to become a stage prop for animal and human drama. An early work like Detweiler’s 1997 Dog Pile is a cavorting backyard assembly of dogs that pays clear homage to Roy de Forest. 2007 Paintings like Squabble, Faculty Meeting and Survival of the Fittest echo the overall patterning and textures of de Forest’s canine gatherings, yet conflict is energizing the event. Increasingly, the peaceable kingdom becomes a wild, chaotic, slapstick burlesque of our dog-eat-dog life (involving the cats, birds and squirrels, too) that runs parallel to Detweiler’s more overt critique of human foibles.
In 2008, Detweiler began a series of paintings that were more strident and responsive to that year’s global-scale economic disasters. A housing and foreclosure crisis instigated a spreading economic recession with a major drop in stock values, and widespread unemployment. In paintings like The Lawyer Detweiler portrays these events in terms of disasters blindsiding the families that fell prey to predatory lending practices. Did the borrowers willingly borrow more than they knew they could pay back? The bears and the bulls, the bankers, the speculators, and the willfully ignorant all have a role in the sad story in Meltdown. Bank Owned, 2009, is monochromatically brown, black and white. The Bear leans wistfully on the Bull —again in the style of Picasso’s Guernica – against the backdrop of a small working class home that has been foreclosed. Smoke pouring from the chimney suggests that the family may be boarded up inside the house with nowhere to go. The smoke is filling the grey sky and the community with contaminants. The Bear’s paw blinds the homeowner who appears nearly lifeless at the bottom of the painting. The Bull holds a sign offering to sell the house (or is it the painting?) with “extra colors” thrown in.
Detweiler’s exhibitions in Switzerland, Korea and Japan fortuitously suggested the creation of YES Industries, a venture in Yen, Euros and Dollars. Under the banner of YES Industries’ monetary symbols, a yuppie couple relishes a tray of unimagined rewards in Money changes Everything. Bewildered animals contemplate its meaning in Yes, Naturally, and in Starry YES Vincent Van Gogh laments the fate of the artist whose worth is only discovered after death. Another YES Industries invention: sculptural donation boxes, with a three-dimensional YES standing boldly above the slot for insertion of money, appeal for cash contributions that avoid the middle man and go directly to the artist.
During periods as Department Chair, when a high demand for attention to administrative matters made it difficult to execute large paintings, Kelly Detweiler engaged in play with collage materials and doodled figures to satisfy his need to create. A series using maps and calendars with collage and doodles, many of which were featured in his 2009 show at the Triton Museum, added a grand cast of publicly celebrated characters, and offered a change-up in Detweiler’s style. His casting employs a lot of carefully inserted figures from old movie magazines and cartoon-hero comics amidst beautifully rendered botanical elements and map details. Detweiler allows fainting maidens, children, animals and his own cast of fools to be saved by religious icons and invincible heroes, often on a world stage. Comparing the truly serious paintings in the Yes series with these mixed-media events reminds us again of those lost days of innocence when we believed in Errol Flynn, Superman, our banker, the government and religion.
Overall, the human figure, for Kelly Detweiler, manifests as a stoic creature, mystified by the contemporary world, surrounding social dynamics, politics, economics, the opposite sex, his own family and even himself. Indeed many of Detweiler’s protagonists are male if not outright autobiographical. They are funny, maybe silly, and sometimes foolish. The tragi-comic hero’s unresponsive face only occasionally admits a wee upturn of the mouth, a startled look in the eye, a bit of a frown, but mostly he is unprepared for the looming threats and disasters that lurk in the background or at the edges of his everyday life. In Family Unit, 1986, typically strange and awkward social interactions take place when a father and son with rifles encounter a barefoot woman with a baby, as well as, a smug but unexplained man in a red clearing in the countryside. In Hot Tub, 1986, eight figures are impassively engaging in a hot tub on the back deck. One woman is completely nude, the full moon forming a halo of innocence behind her head. Uh Oh! Two fully clothed figures that have the official look of church emissaries or neighborhood minders are approaching behind the fence. This kind of unexplained social encounter repeats in situations at Detweiler’s dining tables, in the living room, and on the street.
One of those eternal domestic/social issues – the great chasm between male and female -- came to explicit heights of comic warfare in the graphic artworks of James Nutt and Peter Saul: lots of violence and sex. Kelly Detweiler embraces the approach/avoidance theme of these two contemporaries, but with a softer, more philosophical, bewildered male version. Flowers for Miss L, 1994, and The Creep reveal our hero’s inept and uncertain courtship of the mysterious female of the species. In both works he courts her with a simple old-fashioned bouquet of flowers, and he stands against a background of the natural landscape -- perhaps even in reference to bucolic 19th C landscape painting -- but she is a contorted, multifaceted creature, spawned by Picasso and living in the age of unsympathetic architecture and Modernism. In Flowers for Miss L, the hero approaches bravely and seems oblivious to the bared teeth of Miss L and her dog. By the time of painting The Creep, everyman in his wife-beater tee shirt is almost as twisted as his Cubist Galatea, and cannot decide to reveal his bouquet even though she has become more flirtatious in expression and posture. Ah, the female! As an inanimate sculptural form, and signifying both a role in art history and gender politics, she recurs frequently as agent provocateur in Detweiler’s odysseys.
Ceramics, and the vessel as essentially female, have an interesting way of coming full circle in Detweiler’s play with the still life. Curvacious, 2003, is a still life painting with floating fruit, a green bottle and which features a voluptuous female-torso pitcher that utilizes the arms as handles and the neck as a spout. A small painting within the painting is the head of a woman whose stern gaze deplores the truncated female, a product of the male gaze. In works like The Collector a rather nerdy guy is dutifully stroking his dog. The still lives and small sculpture in the background comprise a narrative of their own, telling us something of how our solitary guy relates (or perhaps related -- past tense) to women.
In his most recent work, Detweiler again calls up all the dramas, characters and epochs of his painting and sculpture in contexts that suddenly bring a lot of history together. The landscapes and interiors, life and still life, the male vs. female and the vessel, everyman and cubism all come together with new, if subtle, shifts. Michael, Chairman, Interior and Interior with Woman, have it all – the painful and playful, the lovely and the grotesque – mixed up with Detweiler’s favorite still life theme. Each one situates a featured character with his or her oversized head in jntegration/juxtaposition with such still life elements as stylized vases, fruits and flowers, a glass coffee table and chair, and framed pictures on the wall. Interior and Interior with Woman are rich with Detweiler color, energy and a full tribute to Cubism with respect to treatment of the face. Michael gets the same unflattering-but-wonderfully-funny treatment though he is outdoors in the landscape. Chairman, however, is a visual pun, the Chairman in question being seen through the glass coffee table that is one with the chair seat. Again, his face looms large in this interior event, but here the space is quiet, the colors calmed and our Chairman seems at peace, the portrait of a lovely lady partially seen behind him.
Finally, New Beginning, 2013: The setting is a lovely Kelly Detweiler landscape with mountains and beautifully groomed trees in the background, a couple of small houses, a sunny sky and wispy clouds. Near symmetry rules with foreground trees exiting the painting in the upper left and right corners -- each sheltering a figure beneath. The familiar courtship scene has our hero again presenting flowers to a lovely lady with her mysterious Picasso-esque hat, but now she is receptive, they are equals and share a love of the earth and the animals that attend to their blossoming romance. All is well in the kingdom!