Life is made of more tragedies than comedies due to circumstance, point of view, or environment. Children are often fed stories to help them learn lessons that parents hope they never have to use when they grow up. Some of these are fairy tales and fables, but they also include true stories of friends that have found themselves up Shit’s Creek without a paddle. Tragédie, on view now at Beep Beep Gallery, is a dual exhibition between Louis LaPierre and Sanithna Phansavanh who chose to weave together their definitions of tragedy. Absolute knockouts from the show were LaPierre’s portraits of people that he encountered growing up and Phansavanh’s tragic characters interpreted through his formal drawing and painting skills.
Mark Basehore, co-owner of Beep Beep, took a throwback salon-style approach by filling a gallery wall with both artists’ works. The presentation makes the pieces read in one fluid manner. Having skips of wall space in between would’ve made me bored very quickly, but instead smaller paintings become accents and punctuations to the larger paintings.
As quoted from their statement, the two artists “have exchanged knights in shining armor for Apocalyptic horsemen, fair princess-maidens for damaged harlots, and magical kingdoms for flooded cities.” Word! I can agree with that ugly historical turn, because there aren’t any real heroes anymore. I would have never made a decent damsel in distress.
Phansavanh’s skills for drawing the human figure are mesmerizing. Katrina and the Crescent City, a nod to the atrocious Hurricane Katrina disaster, seduced me and drew me into the portrait. It is captivating because of layered color washes of blacks and blues emphasizing the partially covered portrait in the middle, what appears to be a woman whose dead body is floating in murky, bacteria-infested waters. In an instant the painting took me back to a time spent in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward shooting for the New York Times. Til’ this day, I cannot delete the scent of mildew and death from my brain.
Without knowing, Phansavanh gave me a sense of comfort and understanding as I viewed other works such as Joan of Arc and Towers of the Magic Kingdom, Pillars of Babylon. Some of history’s most tragic characters are women and goddesses from Western European cultures. Joan of Arc was a woman who believed she was chosen by God to lead France to victory during the Hundred Years’ War. As a result of her power, she was burned at the stake at the age of 19. It wasn’t until later that she was regarded as a martyr. Phansavanh’s portrait for the show is a partial profile with an elongated neck engulfed in oranges, reds, yellows, and blues as expressionistic references to fire. Lines within the piece are fluid, curved, and jagged and remind me of the violence committed to Joan of Arc by the English after the war.
In Greek mythology, the early Earth goddess, Gaia, was later overshadowed by the male, all- powerful Zeus, who then was transformed into an all-knowing omnipotent Father in Christianity. Phansavanh captured his vision of Gaia in the form of a side-profile portrait of a woman with long, lush flowing hair. As your eyes travel down her neck, there’s this awkward short black line that severs her head from the rest of her body. How fitting for someone who was once worshiped but, at the hand of man, has been almost erased from history.
History has a cycle of violence that, when taught from a Westernized perception, anything existing outside of the West is an uncivilized savage. If it is not white, European, and male-centered, then it is met with a tragic fate that seals the end of other cultures and civilizations.
On the flip side, LaPierre went a little more personal with his paintings and drawings of people from his hometown, dead birds, and nature. The paintings I honestly passed up, because they weren’t fascinating and I couldn’t understand the tragedy behind the characters portrayed. But LaPierre’s graphite drawings Bobby, Betty, and Denny knocked me out.
Imagine a small boy named Bobby resting on his arms and hands looking out into the world with ennui on his face. Farm silos reside behind him randomly placed in the background. Bobby may have come from one of these “All-American,” all-white Midwestern towns that, after a big industrial boom, died with the rise of technology and overseas employment exploitation. The white brush stroke that outlines his left shoulder and arm pushes his portrait further into the foreground in order to show the unpleasant look on Bobby’s face. Coming from a small, country town, I have definitely felt like this little kid before.
Denny is a drawing of man with three cars stacked in front of him and a construction vehicle behind. You wouldn’t know that this man, once a used car salesman who became seduced by greed and power, is based on someone from LaPierre’s hometown. In LaPierre’s defense, his drawings remind me of when America was growing and expanding post-World War II. Movies make it appear that it was simple time when white Americans were able to start up their own businesses, raise wholesome families, and pave a way for their future. But from the rise of big corporations, budget cuts, and recessions, all Americans have suffered at the hands of greed and power just like Denny.
LaPierre’s personal approach to tragedy takes Phansavanh’s historic accounts to a level that illustrates a wide gamut of tragic events. No longer are there beautiful maidens, but instead Hollywood attention-whores like Kim Kardashian that influence our children to become attention whores as well. No longer are there knights in shining armor; that shit died when Camelot fell. And finally, magical kingdoms that become flooded cities are things I know all too well.
Life will never be a constant roller coaster of success. It’s a road filled with bumps and obstacles that, if handled improperly, will turn into tragedy. As I walked out of the gallery, I was pleased by the work that was on display, but the show had me thinking about other groups of people that have been hit with tragic shit their whole lives due to skin color, culture, gender, religion, and sexual preference.
The exhibition, Tragédie, continues at Beep Beep Gallery through this Sunday, June 26, 2011.