The use of oil paint was perfected in the Northern Renaissance and has been the medium of choice for serious painters ever since. Acrylic paint, an invention of the mid-20th century, has been gaining in popularity, but even it is often used in ways which attempt to imitate the effects of traditional oils. That is definitively NOT the case with the work of painter Ben Darby. His current show, now at Bryan Ohno in Pioneer Square, uses acrylic paint to do things that Rembrandt or Velazquez would have never dreamed of, and the results are sometimes startling. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Shiny, madcap, over the top. A Ben Darby painting confronts the viewer with all the subtlety of a slap in the face, all the restraint of Mardi Gras. In Darby’s work, acrylic paint, far from meekly masquerading as oil paint lite, glitters and glows like the plastic it is, garish and uninhibited in illustrating a wide range of colorful artistic fancies.
A case in point is the impressively vulgar "Joy Ride," an only-from-Ben-Darby depiction of a squirming mass of blue phalluses being hoisted aloft by a floating bouquet of tiny sheep. Apparently based on a visit the artist made to a porn shop with a stock of inflatable farm animals, the work is a good illustration of the principle that paintings about sex are not necessarily erotic. This particular image is more notable for its graphic punch and vivid three-dimensionality than titillating effect. The several dozen deep blue penises, their knotted clump reminiscent of clots of earthworms one buys at garden shops, contrasts vividly with a garish, spattered orange background, a stand-in for the sky. On the ground below, pink phalluses with wheels roll to and fro like freeway traffic, the biggest phallus on the block an appropriate stand-in for that male icon, the SUV.
As in nearly all of Darby’s work, these assorted objects are raised up from the picture surface in 3-D bas-relief, the product of molds made by the artist to shape the extra-thick acrylic film. A humorous essay on male desire and male excess, this image is also a send-up of the floral still-lives of traditional art, to which it bears a passing resemblance.
Another Darby preoccupation, the intersection of kitsch and spirituality, is the subject of a six-foot square extravaganza entitled, "Rubber Chicken Mandala." Here a giant, vividly colored sunflower — reminiscent of the circular maps of the universe that are a feature of Tibetan Buddhism — appears on closer inspection to be made up of massed ranks of the infamous gag store poultry. Rows of tiny stretched-out yellow chickens appear as the bristling center of the floral corona, while multicolored chicken heads and plucked green chicken bodies create the surrounding petals.
Darby here offers us a whole alternate cosmology, complete with an approaching octopus representing evil, and massed blue poodles representing good. Whether the artist takes this parallel universe seriously, or not, is besides the point — the painting both amuses and intrigues, with its unlikely pairing of the best of the East with the silliest of the West.
Not nearly as successful is the most ambitious work in the show, a complicated installation on the theme of modernization in China. A giant stuffed panda bear — symbolic here of the unspoiled China of yesteryear — has been cut into a dozen and a half pieces, with each piece supporting several tiny painted vignettes. The imagery, borrowed almost unaltered from a wide variety of printed and photographic sources, has been selected to support Darby’s thesis that in today’s China, everything is for sale. A man carries a dead pig through a market; a row of orphans sits ready for Western adoption; ancient symbolism is appropriated for use on package labels.
Missing here for the most part is Darby’s trademark sense of humor and zany inventiveness; missing as well is a direct connection between subject matter and material. Darby’s strength is as visionary and showman, not social critic.
The panoramic canvas, "Thigh Master" is a subject much more up Darby’s alley. In the foreground, a playful flock of blue rubber tubes with bright red plastic handles twists and tumbles through space, a beautifully realized Southwest landscape providing an expansive setting. In the accompanying text, a purported eyewitness account, Darby writes, “It was surreal! It was spectacular, watching them dart and whirl!” We have the same response to the best of his highly entertaining work.