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The Art of Fantasy

Contemporary work at 808 Gallery explores imaginary worlds

The Calender’s Tales: Fantasy, Figuration, & Representation, 808 Gallery Boston University, Untitled (Man w/Letter), Kojo Griffin

Kojo Griffin’s 2004 monotype Untitled (Man w/Letter) is one of 30 works in a new exhibition at the 808 Gallery that explore how contemporary artists are using fantastical creatures in their work. Images courtesy of 808 Gallery

For centuries, art frequently depicted fanciful creatures such as unicorns, angels, and Roman gods passing themselves off as bulls or swans. Think Hieronymus Bosch’s busy canvases or the vast number of Renaissance religious paintings. Artists used these imaginary figures to tell pictorial fables and parables. Modernism, especially minimalism and abstract expression, seemed to put an end to all that. But as a new show at BU’s 808 Gallery makes clear, a new generation of artists is finding inspiration in allegorical and mythical figures.

The Calender’s Tales: Fantasy, Figuration, & Representation features works by 17 contemporary artists who have returned to art’s historic roots, but with an updated spin. The fanciful creatures in these paintings are not the products of classical mythology and religion, but rather of the artists’ own imaginations. Those imaginations have invented the likes of the Mounds, the half-people, half-plant mutants that parade through Trenton Doyle Hancock’s color-packed canvases, prints, and collages, or the idealized males adorned with feathers that slink through the lush world depicted in Tino Rodriguez’s highly polished paintings.

“Artists use these fictional characters as a way to explore real human concerns and experiences, such as what it’s like to be an outsider, what makes for a gender identity, issues around race,” says show curator Lynne Cooney (GRS’08,’15), School of Visual Arts exhibitions director.

The exhibition takes its title from one of the stories in The Arabian Nights, the anthology of Persian, Arabian, and South Asian folk tales. That fable got Cooney thinking about fantastical storytelling and characters, and how that tradition lives on in contemporary art. Consequently, she gathered 30 works by 16 American artists and one Canadian. The works include paintings, prints, drawings, and a large installation by the Boston-based husband-wife team of dieRaul-Raul Gonzalez and Elaine Bay. Two of the artists have had work in the Whitney Biennials, the annual showcase of contemporary American art at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Wrestlers in Russian Two on One with Happy Worriers, Larissa Bate, The Calender’s Tales: Fantasy, Figuration, & Representation, 808 Gallery Boston University

Wrestlers in Russian Two on One with Happy Worriers, Larissa Bates, 2011, gouache on panel.

The styles in The Calender’s Tales range from Larissa Bates’ meticulous, mysterious small landscapes, whose flatness and composition resemble Japanese woodblock prints, to Joyce Pensato’s large-scale portrait of Batman, painted in broad, messy strokes of black and silver. All the works feature imaginary characters, but some lean harder on a storyline than others, though those narratives can be hard to follow for the viewer, such as the elaborate and ongoing saga of good versus evil that runs through Hancock’s Mounds. Hancock originally wanted to make comic books, and that influence is obvious not only in his use of pictorial storytelling, but in his graphic lines and explosive colors. His hyperkinetic compositions have the pop of graffiti art.

In his large paintings, San Francisco painter David Huffman likewise tells an ongoing story—the tale of what he calls the “tramaunauts.” According to the artist, these small black figures in space suits represent the lost souls created by slavery, which wrenched countless Africans from their native land. Set against the gray washes of Huffman’s canvases, the traumanauts are forever searching for a home, whether it be in space or in the past.

Animals figure in many of the show’s works, adding a children’s storybook quality to some of the paintings, such as the doll-like beings with the heads of bears, elephants, and dogs in Kojo Griffin’s canvases. These human-animal hybrids don’t follow a whimsical storybook plot, however. Instead, they act out scenes that express the mundaneness, disappointments, and even cruelty of everyday human life, from marital spats to executions. Likewise, the slight figures with the heads of birds in Iris Charabi-Berggren’s finely rendered pencil drawings lead a precarious existence in a world dominated by war and natural disaster. In the artist’s External View, a group of these creatures watches from a ridge as a dark, spiked cloud rises in the distance. In another, titled Internal View, Charabi-Berggren gives an up-close view of that explosive cloud, which is shot through with bird-headed victims meeting their deaths.

“Through these imaginary figures we can think about issues that would be too hard to express or face otherwise,” Cooney says. “That’s what makes fantasy and allegory so powerful.”

The Calender’s Tales: Fantasy, Figuration, & Representation runs through March 31 at the 808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 617-358-0922.

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Amy Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me About Life Love and Marriage, Boston Globe, Boston University
Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

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