One of the most comforting things about a fairy tale is that it's usually pretty easy to tell who the bad guys are. Gnarled faces, cackling laughs, abnormal love of black clothing, and enough ambitious, deeply evil schemes to make even a Bond villain take a moral pause -- these are the not-so-subtle signs that certain characters can't be trusted. Of course, this moral simplicity is also the fairy tale's downfall, as kids are soon told that "real life" isn't so clear-cut.
But as kids leave behind the black and white of fantasy, they also lose the genre's enchantment: cool little elves, princesses, or miniature tree houses. This kind of magic isn't any more realistic than the evildoer who announces himself through his creepy, glowing red eyeball, but really, it's so much fun! There has to be a place for magic in the grown up world.
California artist Greg "Craola" Simkins brings his take on magic with adult complexity to the FIFTY24SF Gallery this month with the Don't Sleep show. This collection of paintings and drawings features the kind of elfin, impish creatures common in fairy tales, complete with an enchanted landscape of forests, butterflies, and dewy meadows.
But these aren't sweet little frogs just waiting to be turned back into the prince who will then marry you and whisk you away to a life of castles and splendor. Actually, it's better. These weird, twisted creatures have hints of darkness lurking behind them. They are awkward and gangly, with glowing yellow eyes and sullen faces. Simkins ups the complexity by placing his monster-sprites in elaborate and gorgeous worlds, under glowing dollops of ice cream sundae clouds, and posed in front of adorable cottages and treehouses.
This art could easily fall into the type of intentionally creepy, Ryden-esque art currently flooding galleries (and drowning my patience for one more painting of a big-eyed girl). But Simkins has much more to say with his work than the boring "that looks cool" pleasure so common in hipster art. Simkins is an expert at using intriguing symbols to both entertain and provoke the viewer. Don't Sleep exhibits his skill in not only turning the usual sweetie pie imagery of fantasy on its head, but in working an almost literary irony out of the symbols.
In one painting a pensive demon, bright red cape pulled sullenly around his shoulders, perches pre or post-flight on the kind of gnarled tree branch seen most often as shade for a sleeping troll or mischievous band of leprechauns. Puffy, cute sheep are stacked in a tower gnawing on each other's backs while a giant white jack-o-lantern in turns gnaws them. The pumpkin is clearly sinister, but its visual parallel to the big, round sheep invites us to look closer at the cute little animals. When we do, we see pink, bleary eyes and shifty gazes lurking in the poof of fluffy wool, and the painting takes on a new meaning.
Though most pieces read like portraits, there's a sense that the subjects are in the midst of the classic magical journey. Creatures gaze from scenes so full of loving detail that you can't help but feel there is a whole world that comes to life when the gallery closes for the night. Walking through the show, there's an excitement at having caught the characters on their way to finding that fabled magic talisman, or breaking the evil spell. Most fairy tales treat this "ugly duckling" phase as the stepping stone, but Simkins settles in this territory. With his treatment, the journey is beautiful, and it's refreshing to appreciate the tension and discovery in these transition moments.
Simkins gives irony back to the fairytale hero. His magical creatures seem more like bastardized mistakes; blends of normally cute parts into a strange little gremlin that can't help but make you think, "ew." My personal favorite was a bat-like creature in a Batman type costume with cape and insignia emblazoned across its chest. This curious little guy spoke to me -- he looked so sad to be saddled with the hero costume. Was it that this mystical little player in a clearly enchanted world aspires to the easy heroism of Bruce Wayne? Or does he resent that in a magical world, there's no choice but to be heroic? I can't see yellow eyes and bat wings fitting into a suit and a desk job.
But I think Simkins's world is open enough to mean different things to different people. And I'm willing to bet that no matter what the reaction, viewers will find it's a pleasure just to be invited into Simkins's world for a passing trip.
Don't Sleep runs through February 24, 2007 at Upper Playground's Fifty24SF Gallery in San Francisco.