I want to be a hobo. To ride the rails over the High Plains, campfires and tin cans and burlap sacks for sheets. I want to be a part of the landscape while traveling through it, tracing the iron grid that created the Midwestern towns and fields I've only seen from airplane windows.
But I'll never be a hobo. I like French-pressed coffee too much, and after a brief period of homelessness this fall, have realized I am not the type of person who can tolerate being "in-between homes." But still I'll romanticize the heck out of hobo life -- imagine them as outlaw heroes, back roads pioneers, beholden solely to train schedules, scanning corrugated parades for empty freight cars in which to leap.
There's a guy who goes by the name of "Other" and he rides on the railroad through the American Midwest and Canada and sometimes in Europe. He paints on his temporary, moving home. He paints faces and scrawls messages and when you're not expecting it his images pop out at you. I've never seen his work on a train car, but I can imagine it -- the surprise and the tension between the static image and the moving canvas.
"Other" also goes by the name Troy Lovegates. Recently, Lovegates stopped moving long enough to display his paintings inside, on the wall, at the Needles and Pens Gallery, in an exhibit titled Stolen Land. Based on Web chatter, people were excited about the show, which opened December 5 and runs through December 31, 2008. They were especially excited about the possibility of seeing so much of his work in one place -- one with stable walls and a stable roof. A building, with a solid foundation and a fixed street address, is the opposite of a moving train car. I was curious about this, too, and wondered how the shift in context would affect and alter the pieces.
Lovegates's style is a sort of sophisticated graffiti. Chiseled, finely detailed faces sit atop cartoonish bodies; figures equally at home in a brick alley as an art gallery. The exhibit at Needles and Pens is a study in contrasts. It consists of paintings done on everyday objects, such as a linoleum countertop and the interior of a desk drawer, as well as gouache and ink drawings neatly set within black frames. Prints and paintings on cut-out pieces of wood create a dynamic collage on one wall. Themes of solitude and smothering intertwine in the work. Lonely figures look out from the wall startled, some holding liquor bottles, some swaying uncertainly. One wears a belt buckle etched with the simple word "Alone." Other works express connection. A series of bulbous forms sprout multiple heads in a series of framed drawings. The monstrous figures have detailed intestines and fetuses growing inside. People both grow and sit trapped inside other people. Boundaries are nonexistent. Patterns repeat on clothing and as independent abstractions.
Will I forever alienate every Mission District resident under the age of 28 if I say I was disappointed in Stolen Land? Well, I was. Not in the work, per se, but in its display. The setting, an out-of-the-ordinary environment for this artist's work, could have served as a point of conceptual tension. It could have highlighted the contrast between inside and outside, between static and motion, that runs through his practice. Images could've leapt across the walls, could've climbed the ceilings to create an all-encompassing installation that drew attention to the space's confining nature as well as its form. But instead, whatever tensions existed seemed unintentional. The images inside the frames felt stuck, as though they longed to break free and write themselves across the gallery walls. The cut-out wood and sculptural paintings loomed beside them, an uneven mural that was visually rich but lacked cohesiveness. I'd still recommend the show; it just didn't accomplish what I had hoped it would.
And I'd still like to be a hobo. To break from my day job and spend my mornings staring out of square-framed boxcar windows. To look up and see one of Other's paintings traveling by on its way to somewhere else. Maybe that's the best way to see his work -- when I have no expectations, when I can let myself be surprised by its sudden appearance and charm.
Stolen Land is on display at Needles and Pens, 3253 16th St., San Francisco, through December 31, 2008. For more information, call 415-255-1534.