There’s a monster living on N Street NW. Amid a craggy maze of alleys just west of the new Washington Convention Center, it peeks its face—a mess of pink lumps and heavy-lidded, mirrored eyes—out at the rare pedestrian. The thing, restrained behind the glass storefront of G Fine Art, is simultaneously frightening and beautiful—just what artist-cum-mad scientist Luis Silva had in mind when he contributed the beast to G’s current group show.
“Lovely young Agatha is a little Promethean monster,” says the 41-year-old of his piece. Named for a character encountered in Frankenstein, the 16-foot-wide, 6-foot-high high she-monster, titled lovely young Agatha (beautiful monster no. 2), was created with cloth and fiber stuffing in the spring of 2004.
Silva says the work is about “virtue, innocence, mutation, and fear,” but he doesn’t want Agatha’s scariness to be the first thing his audience notices. “The fear thing, I don’t want that on the surface,” he says. “You see the beauty, joy, playfulness, then you think about what it is.”
With a spray of puffy, colorful flowers both trailing behind her and encircling one of her many peepers, Agatha and her playmates have won the Silver Spring, Md., resident an unexpected fan base. “I love that children like looking at my work,” Silva says of his smallest fans. “It’s part of who I am, and I play with that.”
Silva’s work is often kid-friendly, but usually with dark undertones. “Kids love it, but I’m not sure their parents love them looking at it,” he says. His 2003 solo exhibition at G Fine Art was a mix of paintings based on digitally altered, fun-house-mirror portraits of friends and photographs of bright toys. Silva says his work’s sideshow feel is intentional—designed to strip the viewer, the art, and the artist himself, of pretense.
As the current chair of American University’s Department of Art, Silva also encourages his students to buck conventional thinking about what art should be. Developing his eclectic style over the past decade, he says, “I cared less who it appealed to, its place in the art world—I was doing things that reflect my interest and curiosity. That’s the maturation point.”
Whether using a brush, needle and thread, or splicing Halle Berry’s tearful Oscar acceptance speech with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci to create a unique opera, as he did for summer 2002 exhibitions in exhibitions in Baltimore and Miami, Silva tends to produce works with a distinctly fanciful feel. This attracts the general public and admirers of contemporary art, Silva notes, but it can be difficult to push on more conservative artists and critics. “In the art world,” he says, “whimsy is a hard sell.”
But G Fine Art Director Annie Gawlak says that the artists who have viewed Agatha have been nothing but accepting. “I get mostly artists here,” she says, “people who are in the art world, and they definitely accept it immediately. The first reaction is, ‘Cool. OK. Cool.’ It’s like a 15- or 16-year-old. They might intellectualize it afterwards, but that’s the initial reaction.”
Silva says he will use those reactions to inform future projects. During last year’s show at G, he walked into the gallery one afternoon to find two people watching his video of toys and mimicking their expressions.
“I’m thinking, This is great,” he recalls. “This is how children learn—that’s a social-learning tool. But I’m learning—learning by watching you engage.
“It’s one thing to be whimsical and light and never figure out why you’re doing something,” he continues. “It’s another to say, ‘That gave me a chuckle—why?’” —Sarah Godfrey