Are We Not Men?, pastel on panel, 2014
New Work by Shayne Hull
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
There has always been a playful, light-hearted quality in much of Shayne Hull’s work. Affectionate portraits of community leaders rendered with a twinkle in the eye of both the subject and the artist, or a satirical perspective on world political figures executed with a brush dipped in acid are notable examples.
The inevitable confrontation with physical vulnerability and mortality that comes with middle age seems to have introduced mordant and, at times, macabre sensibilities to his latest body of work, so that the humor we find now seems capable of generating some squeamishness in the viewer. Laughter, whether audible and external or private and interior, is often a defense mechanism; a release of tension when we are made uncomfortable. Hull’s work continues to fascinate by exploring darker aspects of human experience.
Not unusually for Hull, faces dominate. Some are young with open, probing eyes that force questions. In “Ben Monk”, there is mysterious, undefined pain and suffering present and the subject’s gaze registers that pain without filter, as if to ask, why me and not you? Other, more mature countenances reflect hubris, bewilderment and whimsy. Most strikingly, Hull’s self-portraits are merciless in presenting a tortured and profoundly exposed sense of identity that hint at some intangible agony. However unforgivingly he views his various subjects, the artist doe not let himself off the hook.
Hull’s human heads are often misshapen, revealing the malleable plasticity of human form but absurdly applied to the hardness of the skull. Louisville Councilman David Tandy and activist Christopher 2X appear as if in a fun house mirror, and one of the self-portraits features the artist’s head effectively maimed by barbed wire. Our brains are encased and protected in these rounded shields of bone, and that they are here so easily distorted suggests an awareness of the arrogance by which we take our bodies for granted; a cautionary reminder of our own fragility and the preciousness of life.
The same themes are present in a series of small 3-D pieces that are juxtaposed against the large paintings and drawings. Again, they are almost all heads and faces, but the scale, colors and presentation are lighter, easier to approach. Perhaps because they seem like toys fit for a child’s room, lining the bookshelf along with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, they have a charm and innocence within the context of the exhibit that is consistent but also in some contrast to the emotional and psychic weight of the portraits.
The motif of childhood is also present in the arresting image of a young boy pressing a dark cylinder shape under his jaw, and another where two such shapes are pressed hard into another boy’s cheeks. In the former, the wooden rod is, at first glance, easily mistaken for a gun barrel and the connotations are deeply disturbing until the viewer realizes the picture is not what it seems. The latter comes across with the playfulness that likely hews closer to the artist’s intention.
Hull has stated that he is surprised that people find such dark themes in his work, yet I do not believe he is being disingenuous. Art that reaches more deeply is often the result of the artist touching upon still waters at a subconscious level. However he gets there, Shayne Hull’s work is deeply resonant.
New Work by Shayne Hull
August 1 – 31, 2014
638 East Market Street
Louisville, KY 40202