John Spear

at Illinois Art Gallery, through November 8

at Ten in One Gallery, through November 23

John Spear’s two paintings titled Adrift, with their lone figures on rafts in a stormy sea, certainly recall Homer’s The Gulf Stream, while the sea’s froth echoes Delacroix, and the streaked sky Gericault. And Spear acknowledges these influences. But in the larger Adrift (on display at the Illinois Art Gallery), the raft is besieged by a ridiculously large number of fish–not only a giant shark with open jaws but a smaller, silly-looking yellow monster with its teeth clamped onto the the raft’s edge. Indeed, the profusion of colorful fish is almost decorative: are they a threat or a joke? The figure on the raft suggests an answer: it’s not a heroic mariner but a pink elephant with large, cartoonish eyes fearfully watching the shark. The elephant holds a wind sock–Spear calls it “a futile sail”–whose curved shape makes little sense as a container for the wind but a lot of sense as an echo of the goofy curves of the elephant and fish.

It isn’t simply the elephant that separates Spear’s painting from high-art traditions. The unsettled sea looks more like a magazine illustration than like Delacroix’ ocean–or Homer’s. Delacroix’ waves and foam seem a bit different each time one returns to them; Spear’s work is less rewarding on repeated viewings. But his picture isn’t just comic-book style either. The elephant’s face is depicted in a variety of hues instead of flat monochromes, and the multiple curves above its eyes–eyebrows and folds of skin–create a mix of humor and fright that’s a bit hard to pin down. Nor can the complex sea and its multiple fish be taken in at a glance.

Ever since pop art emerged in the 60s many artists have worked to efface the distinctions between high and low–to the point where the old question “Is it art?” seems rather uninteresting. But work such as Spear’s, containing elements of both traditions, is especially hard to categorize. He combines some of the immediate gratification of cartoony lines with enough painterly complexity to create an absorbing experience for the viewer, mixing the evocation of emotions with–well, fun.

Spear’s mixture of forms has its roots in his childhood. Born in Kalamazoo in 1962, he grew up with both fine-art books and television. When he was in kindergarten his parents began to discourage his copying of cartoons from comics and TV–“They wouldn’t punish,” he says, “but they wouldn’t praise things that were copied.” So he started drawing from life, soon taking on the project of “drawing everything I could identify in the world. I moved away from cartoons and started trying to draw scientifically or academically.” At about the same time, he heard that “Walt Disney visited Upjohn, where my grandfather was a supervisor, and saw one of my drawings and told my grandfather that I could have a job at Disney when I grew up.”

But when Spear visited Disneyland at age ten he found it a “very depressing experience.” His parents not only moved often but divorced when he was nine, and his home life was “very chaotic, very disruptive. Disneyland represents an ideal world and it has a lot of safe images,

comforting images, homogeneity. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it–I felt profoundly isolated because it was not the world I was experiencing.” In the large Blue Velveteen Rabbit (at the Illinois Art Gallery) a rabbit stands in a long, yellow corridor holding a knife, his eyes wide with fear, the door behind him open a crack. Because the paint is more evenly applied than in Adrift, this looks like a scene from an animated cartoon that’s turned into a noirish melodrama; one doesn’t know how to take its melding of children’s book illustration and the surreal. The title, Spear says, refers both to “a children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, about loving a toy rabbit so much that it comes to life, and the movie Blue Velvet, in which a child is an unseen captive.”

Spear works in series, and several different groups are represented in the 51 paintings at the Illinois Art Gallery. In the “Sumi Paintings” he depicts animals and landscapes in a vaguely oriental manner, with lots of empty space and calligraphic renderings of leaves and grasses. Each painting has a haikulike title, some of which mock bad translations, written in letters printed vertically, faux-Chinese style: “Young Porkypine Taking Care of Wild Animal Business on Recently Closed Stretch of Railroad Track in Indiana,” for example, pretty accurately describes that image. These are Spear’s witty attempts to embrace the many cultural influences on him; the borrowed styles and “mistranslated” texts are to be expected in an artist whose influences range from Brueghel to Fragonard to Guston to the films of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger to New Yorker illustrations to corporate mascots to “the early Mickey Mouse” to the comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb to “bad TV movies and soap operas.”

But the “Social Worker” series, from which all 17 paintings at Ten in One are taken, are more explicitly autobiographical. For the last seven years Spear has been a social worker in Chicago, doing counseling, sometimes using art. “You get a very full experience. People are just amazing–they can be hard and scary and lovable and pitiful and amusing.” Many of these portraits, which are often composites of several people, are monochrome; the animals in them are “stand-ins for people,” and Spear’s attempt is to “humanize” them. All are small in scale “because they’re about what the world might point to as the ‘little’ people.” They work well together, as a kind of inventory of human failings.

Spear takes an endearingly optimistic view of his subjects’ troubles. At the center of the dark blue room in Ten Days Without Sleep Changes a Person is a glowing yellow elephant in a chair; liquor bottles lie on the floor and a companion sleeps nearby. Though the scene suggests a binge, the luminous elephant seems happy. In the pale tan Excuses a seal social worker stands between a seated animal couple; the male is raising his palms and shrugging his shoulders, giving his “excuse.” The standing social worker may be a bit more authoritative than the couple, but his huge belly also makes him more goofy. Spear copied a small “Smoking Permitted” poster on the wall from the sign a client made. Like his larger paintings, these establish a complex tone, presumably reflecting the subjects’ and artist’s mixed emotions about these on-the-edge situations. To borrow Spear’s words about his clients, each is both lovable and scary.

I looked for deeper meanings behind Spear’s odd admixture but eventually decided there aren’t any. That’s the point. Spear’s art is pleasurable, and it makes statements about the world; but it’s not a window into immeasurable depths and untranslatable complexities. Like many artists who combine high and low traditions in art, he offers an experience somewhere in between. About his choice of animals in the “Sumi” series he says, “It really comes down to just thinking about which animal I want to do today.” Sometimes Spear’s art is simply about having fun.

This is perhaps clearest in my favorite series, the rapidly painted, improvisational “You and Me and Our Beautiful Life Together.” Calling these paintings “visually wild,” Spear says they’re about “reclaiming personal experience in the face of an overly commodified world. I am opposing the antiseptic, prepackaged nature of life.” But Spear doesn’t really engage the themes of commodification and prepackaging; the opposition is implicit in his playfulness. In Soul Kiss at Sybaris two animals stand in a pool of water rendered in multicolored brush strokes, under a shower of similarly colored water. A pinkish background provides a cartoonish contrast with the mostly bluish pool, while the animals’ bright red tongues, meeting at the center of the composition, form a single mouthlike shape.

Two anxious critters in Pen Chewers in the Toy Museum stand before five shelves of brightly colored boats and cars; the childish designs on their clothing link the animals with the toys. Like Barnett Newman’s stripes, the shelves go right to the edge of the composition, implying that they continue. But if Newman’s stripes lead the eye to a mental realm beyond measurement, Spear’s toy shelves suggest a fanciful imagination devoted to making as many pleasing shapes as possible–fun without end.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Blue Velveteen Rabbit” by John Spear.