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D. Billy sees the world in panels—Benday dotnmarked, halftone-shaded, superhero-filled panels. And he’s determined to fill them with words like “pow,” “bam,” and “snikt.”
“I found a thrift store in Brooklyn with bins and bins…everything for a quarter,” says the 28-year-old artist, describing a recent comics score. “Everything from Jack Kirby era through the late ’80s…[b]efore things got self-conscious.” The vintage comics that serve as the raw materials for his own artwork aren’t merely kitsch—they’re a way that the artist processes the world.
“Sink Sank Sunk,” currently on display at Transformer, is the artist’s first solo show. Comprising some two dozen pieces made this year, Billy’s work falls into two camps: mixed-media drawing and photography. For the former, Billy collages comic illustrations and other found images onto cradled panels on boxes. Over these he draws in action onomatopoeia—nonsensical words such as “krtoom” and “skree” as well as your everyday “arrrgghhs” and “whoomps.”
This often hysterical style characterized the art Billy made while he lived in the District, where he worked at the Washington Project for the Arts\\Corcoran. Since moving to Brooklyn in August, Billy’s work has taken a new direction: photographing temporary comic interventions with the environment.
“It’s making me notice sights and sounds more,” says Billy.
In fact, he’s finding sounds that aren’t there. Fooosh (Hydrant) features a disused fire hydrant. On the wall behind it, blue party balloons shaped like letters spell out “Fooosh”; in the open hydrant head, blue party streamers hang down like gushing water.
Billy’s the first to lament that the words he loves are out of vogue in today’s grittier, realist-toned comics.
“I have a strong memory of picking up this Amazing Spider-Man from the mailbox, back when Erik Larson was drawing,” says Billy. “It was such an odd, fucked-up combination of villains whose powers and purpose had nothing to do with one another. There’s a weird kind of synergy when two or more completely ridiculous, totally different elements come together.”
In the same sense, Billy has matched the flourishes from the outdated rhetorical style of spandex hero comics with real objects from his environment that have also passed out of use. It took him a while to get the shot without any people lingering in it, he says, but for Rrring (Payphone), Billy installed word balloons spelling out the sound of a phone ringing on a wall behind a pay phone, one that goes practically unnoticed on one of New York’s busiest subway platforms—Grand Central Station.
Given that his work is always focused on sound, Billy says he’s toyed with the notion of incorporating actual sounds into his work through video. In Transformer, however, is one piece that serves as an example of why he feels he doesn’t necessarily have to move in that direction: He’s placed tiny words (“Tik”) in yellow tape around the electrical meter just inside the gallery.
“The sound still occurs,” says Billy. “I just don’t need to put up electronics to make it.”