Raised in Fairfield County, Connecticut, I hold a certain revere and disdain for New England. Albeit a love-hate relationship, it was home. Though, home has lots of meanings; knowing how you’ll be received suites for the time being. A Black youth growing up in lily white Redding, CT during the late 60’s and 70’s should be sufficient fodder for the imagination. With the exception of a few transient minority families, the Slocum’s, Michael, Karl and Lisa were it. To this quaint suburban community set so safely apart from reality, my siblings and I existed as the minority example, the embodying definition of “black.” Suffice it to say, I did my time and paid my dues. Aware of my surroundings, understanding my role, I made due. Graduating high school in 1977, I went far away to college.
I took notice of the return address when the mailman dropped off the package. I wasn’t fast to open the oversized envelope. I set it off to the side for a few days. Acknowledging my connection to the address stirred within me copious dormant memories. Unresolved and dark tendrils gripped at my heart. I was anxious. Hailing from New London, Connecticut, artist Brian Smith sought Philadelphia representation at the Knapp Gallery. Here I sat in the Director’s Chair thirty plus years later, seemingly cutoff from the past, yet Connecticut, like a hound dog chasing a rabbit, relentlessly pursued me. In an instant, I was transported, tumbling back through time and space. Opening Brian’s submittal was like going home, driving down familiar roads, reacquainting the sights and smells of my youth. To a degree, like the aroma of a mother’s cooking, I associated Brian’s imagery, palette and vision with going home.
Obviously, amidst my decision making to show the work or not, it was not enough that Brian’s art was from Connecticut. Certainly, serendipity has its place, but context is king. Contextually, Brian’s paintings speak volumes of their existence. A dream-like, rainy day nostalgic and melancholic chord permeates the drip laden and dark imagery. We are caught up in a waltz without meter, at first losing step while seeking then finding a distant and muffled rhythm. Bold yet raw imagery of form and figure are opposed by creation; each striking at conflict while gravitating towards harmony. Within this duality emerges a subtle tension that keeps us suspended; a long breath holding, the exhale acknowledging the moment. Brian’s images demand “buy-in”; a response. Justifiably so, good art should elicit a response. This response, good or bad, creates and cements our connection to a painting or an entire body of work. In the end, the rewards of our emotional and financial investments are substantiated by painters returning to studios and starting anew.
Coming up out from my slumber, a nostalgic driven sleep, I am remotely aware of my surroundings; though the sounds of Philadelphia quickly resolve my disorientation. Clarity comes; a coexisting past and present as the resolution to the riddle. How sublime, creating a singular vision from bi-polar realities. Putting meat to this bone was easy.
R. Michael Walsh, a veteran painter here at Knapp, needed a ride north to deliver a commissioned painting to Rebecca Knapp, the boss. It was her birthday and Walsh had been work diligently on a huge lion painting (48”x 84”) for nearly two months. Arriving at his apartment/studio Michael shows me another painting he’d been working on, this monstrous stained glass dip-tik 96”x 120” that all but comes to life and says “hey man I’m standing right here in front of you.” Anyway, Michael and I loaded the truck, battled wind and rain delivering his beast to the boss on time. Timing is everything.
Nearly 2 a.m., after the other guests had left, Walsh and I sat in the heated spa talking over a pending sale of one of his paintings. Reminded of the monster painting back at his studio, slowly, silently the plan, like a wind sail, began to unfurl its breadth in my mind. Catching the wind, I was carried away by the force of creation. By morning I was committed. It would be Smith and Walsh First Friday – “Two for one.”
Like Connecticut and Pennsylvania are light years apart, so too are Smith and Walsh bipolar in their approaches to their crafts. Walsh is meticulously fastidious in his process and delivery. And while one might expect a tightness to emerge from this dogmatic formula, the layering aesthetic of Walsh’s pensive and spiritually charged surrealist renderings evidence a freedom sought by many abstractionists.
“Recently my subject matter has become simplified to a combination of iconographic animals and symbols. I assign different roles through the representation of animals as humans, as spiritual idols, and the traditional use as submissive workers. They are depicted with human characteristics and emotions, particularly a passive sadness, for example: a longing pelican in search of companionship. Elephants and rhinos, which normally symbolize strength, are conversely depicted as soft and demure. I also juxtapose animals as idols with other material objects, which may represent deities.” R. Michael Walsh
Conclusively, a line of demarcation exists between my painters in style, process and presentation; almost as different species or races. Initially, I thought Smith would hang in the front with Walsh in the back. So accustomed to societal norms, we overlook the subtleties that encroach and govern our everyday environments and decision making. Reminded of my youthful struggles as ‘the odd kid out,” I cringed at having to accept and acquiesce to the normalcy of this traditional dividing and segregating of gallery space; so sedentary and predictable. Seeking the realization of emancipation, symbiosis even, I’ve decided on a side by side approach. Charged by the boss to “take risks,” I will step up to the plate and swing the bat of change.