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Kelly Detweiler’s landscapes are part of his Triton Museum exhibition.

A Familiar Cast of Characters Flips the Calendar Forward
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Ever since I first saw Kelly Detweiler’s paintings hanging in Eulipia in the seventies, I have been a fan. It took quite a few years before I met the artist and even longer to get to know him as a colleague in the teaching world and as a friend. Through the years his work has borne an unmistakable signature. His wide-ranging stylization of the figure, from cartoony to cubist, his idyllic landscapes often with anthropomorphic animals, and his still lives with witnesses from art history are themes that have sustained his work.

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Still Life with Ghost, by Kelly Detweiler

In his Triton Museum Exhibition, Detweiler talks about working in series, the origins of his work in art history and a rigor learned through his first medium, ceramics. Making vessels heightened the artist’s interest in the role of the ubiquitous vase in historic still lives. Over the years, on a series of small works abandoned by students, Detweiler appropriated, reworked, repainted and continually revisited the vase, playing it against the figure and all the historic elements of the still life, and frequently used collage elements. These small mixed media paintings have been some of my favorites among his oeuvre. And they have lead logically, in terms of process, into Detweiler’s Calendar Series now seen at the Triton. I cannot get enough of these images. I am admittedly biased towards certain aesthetics of graphics and further there are themes in these works that I love.

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From the Calendar Series, Detweiler’s Discovery, 2009

Detweiler tells us that the Calendar Series grew out of drawings and the later addition of collage and paint on his actual desk calendar. In the Calendar Series, Detweiler plays with all the figures that have become iconic in his work — much as we all have been known to doodle a familiar shape, pattern or form while on the telephone — his own version of Mickey Mouse, cubist heads, everyday guys, frontal and in profile, coloring book outline moms, and greeting card snowmen all appeared on his desk calendar. Bird collages and landscape elements of plants in the foreground, against clouds and rocketships passing in front of great orbs representing cells and the celestial bodies all set the stage for a world, if not universal, drama. Newer to Detweiler’s repertoire are the comic superheroes, the adventurers and campy film stars. They expand the already diverse cast of characters playing roles that range from the evil-doer, the fool, the victim, the witness, the ing√©nue, and of course, the savior. For all their upbeat first impressions, (Detweiler pokes a lot of fun at our follies) most of these morality tales suggest the last gasp of the lush earth and a desperate search for an alternate home in outer space. As the calendar says, time is running out. Can an old-fashioned hero save us or was that “only in the movies”?

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Kelly Detweiler’s February 2000 Supermom, 2009

In this series, Detweiler’s color is true to his history in painting. He models form and pulls a full range of value out of many colors, often allowing a rather friendly, ever-so-subtle brownish discoloration to dominate references to history. Occasionally he flattens a shape or an area so that we become more aware of the many layers of space he has created. Bright pastels, high-chroma birds and flowers, and occasional monochromatic forms work around each other. The amalgam of styles, painting & photography, bright colors, grids, numbers, and organic forms is so Postmodern. It is bright and sassy, playful and pop. Its energy, goodwill and humor, mixed with elements of nostalgia are classic Kelly Detweiler. But just as the calendar is about a point in time, so is the larger message the artist sends.

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Detweiler’s Moongardener, 2009

Yes, Detweiler’s work used to be and still is about art history, the human condition in a playful way, about a yearning for the peaceful and perfect landscape from his childhood or a romantic period of centuries past. But if there was any doubt that Detweiler has begun to embrace a subtext of the more urgent and frightening socio-political issues of our time, the rest of his exhibition at the Triton should support this contention.

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Bank Owned, 2009, by Kelly Detweiler

Two of Detweiler’s large paintings show the animals of the peaceful kingdom, now desperately entangled in a battle that none can win. In Survivals of the Fittest mammals at the top of the food chain are all biting, clawing and being bitten and clawed, so that a standoff or complete disaster is inevitable. The animals are rendered in Detweiler’s endearingly soft style, but their desperation is unnerving.

In another series of paintings in the Triton, Detweiler looks at the economic recession and how it affects the marginally buffered homeowner and the artist. His Bank Owned is monochromatically brown, black and white. The Bear leans wistfully on the Bull — whose depiction is in the style of Picasso’s Guernica –against the backdrop of a small working class home that has been foreclosed. Smoke pouring from the chimney suggests that the family may be boarded up inside the house with nowhere to go. The smoke is filling the grey sky and the community with contaminants. The Bear’s paw blinds the homeowner who appears nearly lifeless at the bottom of the painting. The Bull holds a sign offering to sell the house/painting with “extra colors” thrown in.

This is a rich exhibition with a certain amount of background work, a couple of great new series and a lot of the imagery that Kelly Detweiler fans have come to expect. You can spend a lot of time “reading” the work and simply enjoying his unique way putting it all together. The show is up until July 12, 2009.

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