BETWEEN GEORGE GROSZ AND LIFE IN THE ‘HOOD

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Filling the gallery of Empire Seven Studios in San Jose’s Japan Town are an assault of images from large canvases to drawings, prints, painted constructions and a quirky series of paintings on liquor bottles and long playing records. Sean Boyles gives us everything from in his notebook sketches to side trips into abstract expressionism.  There is no room on the walls for title cards but in the tradition of anti-establishmentarianism that accompanies his youthful genre, the titles and prices are casually noted directly on the wall itself.  Sandwiched in together with the aggressive or sad faces, nascent ideas, and sometimes-forgettable trivia, are the many works that reveal a talented observer of life around him.  Within this giant collage, I felt rewarded to discover a pair of untitled mixed media-screenprint images that were rich in layers and details and some small linocut portraits that were delightfully controlled and composed.  The big paintings grab most of the glory, nevertheless.

Sean Boyles’ Draw a Crowd Like an Architect, at Empire Seven Studios

Boyles’ color pallete and overall style talk about the grimy streets, graffiti, young people who are scarred by the neighborhood, their economics, and a life without the imagination of better possibilities. They are often undesirable and cast-off, perhaps even by their own overworked or drugged-out parents, before they are even old enough to hit the streets to play.  Borrowing from Barry McGee, as many artists working in this tradition do, Boyles’ boys in the ‘hood have abnormally widely spaced eyes and teeth, and bags under their eyes.  In one large painting, Draw a Crowd Like an Architect, Boyles assembles a motley crew of folks against a vague city skyline.  Several appear to be railing against each other or maybe just “the system”. Some seem spaced out or crazy. Collectively, their distorted faces and insensitivity to each other remind me of an early 20th Century George Grosz critique of government beaurocrats.  Boyles’ guys, however, do not abuse the public nearly as much as they victimize each other and themselves. They interact but do not seem to connect. Their life hangin’ on the stoop or gathering to listen to a favorite local DJ, drinking and getting high appears to be without relief, a constant circle.

With 21 doors strung together, Boyles creates a screen with two views of reality.

Boyles captures the contrast between the dreary urban routine and a less artificial life in a 21-door folding screen that runs the length of the gallery. One side suggests the isolation of each life caught in the inner city, and the other is a running outdoor scene of animals against sky and foliage.  In a curious twist, the animals engaging nature are domestic dogs and a vulture, mixed in with other species both wild and tamed.  No, there is no pure nature anymore.

VS (Verse Us) by Sean Boyles

My favorite painting is VS (Verse Us). I am reminded, with this title and others, of the love that youth in all generations have for creating their own language — and that we all have for the double entendre. In VS, two individuals who have adopted the most defiant life posture of ghetto weirdness, hang in the ‘hood.  One, too young to be so hardened, is wearing only a light tee shirt, but the other wears his padded parka that never comes off year round. Here, I appreciate, finding more of the characters’ individual personalities developed.  (I am guessing that the guy in the tee shirt is the rapper who will “verse us”). Behind these figures there are signs, dripping paint, marks and drawings that deface a brick wall. Small folks peer from the windows.  In this work, like the giant folding door/screen, Boyles creates a more complete narrative than in many of the other paintings, and that is what I think makes it important.

Sean Boyles is a neat guy, somewhat soft-spoken for an artist that has degrees from both CCA and Mills College and now teaches at Santa Clara University.  His experiences in the North Bay seem to have given him a rich bank of material from which to make his unsettling observations.  He himself appears to have escaped relatively unscarred and embarked on a promising career.  Still I leave this major exhibition with some questions.  Does Boyles truly want us to see this dark side of the inner City, or maybe only to talk about its style?  There are places in the viewing experience where I feel that the exhibition is a celebration of that camaraderie that young men everywhere — in the ‘hood or not — yearn for.  The clues are faces reflected on endless liquor bottles, painted on records and in the innumerable portraits of local characters.  In other places, I begin to see Boyles, the veteran, stepping out bravely to be a critic.  His large paintings begin to go that direction.

For myself, having looked out the window for 25 years at a family of young men who are not educated, are constantly in and out of jail, look pretty beat up for it and are still posturing on the stoop to share a good score of weed, this urban dilemma is not a pretty picture.  Not pretty, but often very interesting.

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