The Eye of the Tiger: PaperFrank at Dashboard Galleries

The opening of PaperFrank's show "Blossom" at Dashboard Galleries.
The opening of PaperFrank’s show “Blossom” at Dashboard Galleries.

I didn’t go to the grand opening of Paper Frank’s “Blossom” at Dash Gallery on April 4. I missed the line that spanned a couple of blocks (Dashboard’s website says that more than 3,000 people attended), the full house of sweaty bodies with camera phones held high to take pictures of the artwork, and the decked-out cars-turned-canvases parked on the curb of North Avenue. Although it would’ve been nice to have had that full experience, the works—full of heart and vitality—kept me company enough on my solo visit to the gallery.

“Blossom” is PaperFrank’s first solo exhibition since “Pink Lemonade” in 2013, which also had an impressive opening with a few thousand in attendance. “Blossom” is a fitting name—the show opened the day before Easter; flowers are a motif in the exhibition; there are dark and lighthearted moments, like the warm days and cold nights of early spring; and the artist seems to have opened up more since “Pink Lemonade.”

PaperFrank, IV, 46 by 72 inches.
PaperFrank, IV, 46 by 72 inches.

His quartet of flower-crowned, cigarette-smoking skulls in yellow, pink, blue, and white on black backgrounds, each 3 feet high, are pretty but obvious, nodding to Warhol’s Skulls. They straddle death and vitality, with the added irony of smoking, no longer the symbol of youth and exuberance that it was once advertised as. What saves them from cliché is the uncanny depth of their eye sockets, framed by the pastel of the bone. They’re eerily captivating.

Eyes—or the lack of them—are a point of fascination in the exhibition for me. In a sizable number of the works, the eyes are obscured in ways that bring attention to their absence. They’re covered by hair, sunglasses, the glare of light on glasses, a length of fabric, flowers, the devil-on-your-shoulder character Kurupt, white paint, or empty space. There is the implication that the characters’ vision is shrouded by impulsiveness, distraction, naiveté, or any number of things that life often throws at a person. In a portrait of the playful kid character Damien, his hair is filled with an image of the cosmos, and he seems to look toward space with a wondrous expression, but his eyes are hidden in the same cosmos by which he is enchanted, as his afro falls over his face. Maybe he’s preventing himself from reaching his goals. Maybe he’s immature and brash, blind to his potential. Maybe the characters with obscured eyes just aren’t ready to bare their souls.

PaperFrank, XXI, 48 by 60 inches.
PaperFrank, XXI, 48 by 60 inches.

When their eyes aren’t concealed, though, the characters exude confidence. In XXI, a tiger roars in agony as a bone pierces its body, its eyes covered by flowers. In X, the troublesome Damien and his terrorizing incarnation pester the unshaken tiger that sits unfazed, its jaw rigid, posture poised, and eyes locked on a distant subject. It’s steadfast and unbending to the nuisances and torments of the world. Perhaps the most intriguing instance of unhindered vision is “I,” a painting markedly flatter than the rest that is on the right-hand side just inside the gallery doors. The painting depicts a motherly figure who gazes out of the gallery window. Her costume and posture are regal, and she reminds me of the chess queen, the most powerful piece on the board, as she oversees the show with silent dignity. It is the only work not for sale.

While PaperFrank’s foray into sculpture—a roaring tiger surrounded by four toothy flowers—is substantial and gets a whole room to itself, it’s unremarkable and is too literal a translation of his 2D works. Although it features the same subjects, it’s not nearly as precise as his paintings and lacks their intensity. I look forward to seeing what’s next, though.

“Blossom” is on view at Dashboard Galleries through May 8.

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