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Luis Silva seems to be cycling through the cultural artifacts of contemporary childhood. The last time he showed at G Fine Art was in 2006 with a show called “Little Monsters,” which featured a variety of “soft sculpture”—-stuffed animals that straddled fantasy and nightmare. The exhibition took in a host of visual influence—-Jim Henson, anime—-and was in many respects an oblique critique of traditional beauty. Its stuffed animals weren’t the garden-variety doe-eyed, smiley-faced cartoons typical of contemporary children’s toys and illustrations.
His current exhibition at G Fine Art, “The Fox’s Tail,” takes on the fable. A crow stashes the feathers of other birds into his plumage. Owl eyes peer from trees. A five-headed lion sits in leopard skins. A wolf saunters through a landscape disguised as a donkey. Silva wrote a 50-page fable, “A Fox’s Tail,” which accompanies this suite of paintings; he completed them in tandem over the course of the last two years, and both ask some not-so-simple question about the order of things. As Silva writes in his fable, “What if lion loved gazelle, wolf loved lamb, fox loved chicken, chicken loved worm, and even worm loved lion?” What if “chicken was free to be chicken because it no longer feared fox? But what if chicken yearned to be more than chicken?” The tale explores the envy chicken, porcupine, and crow have for other animals in the woods. A fox convinces the trio to become more than their identities allow, and the order of the woods falls into disarray.
Since fables are allegories and allegories raise questions about culture, the content of the story could easily be applied to real-life issues of, say, sexual identity or citizenship, just as they could to issues a child might experience in school. What if man loved man? What if Mexican wanted to be more than Mexican; what if he wanted to be Mexican-American? Or, What if nerd wanted to be defensive tackle? What if cheerleader wanted to be debate captain? In the epilogue, Silva leaves his intentions vague.
Silva’s paintings, which mimic early 20-century storybook illustration, are a skillful way to make issues of identity more consumable. Their approach is formulaic and technical, not unlike the work of Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade. But, as the snake of many skins, Silva illustrates not as an illustrator, but as an artist. Considering his previous show was soft sculpture, and the show before that was video—-both expertly crafted—-this series is another example of the idea he furthers in his classes (I was once a student): medium in the service of the master, not the other way around. For this exhibition, the painting is not about paint—-it’s about the narrative that is painted.
That’s not to suggest that these paintings are uninteresting or monotone. Despite the paint serving the purpose of the fable, their structure also serves the history of paint, and perhaps the structure of the painting process, as well. Portions of the drawing—-underdrawing, a centuries-old tradition—-are visible throughout the edges of most the compositions. While the work makes subtle quotes of art history—-Hokusai, Albrecht Dürer, Jasper Johns—-Silva’s work reminds us that the history of painting is born of craft, one that constantly evolves and makes us question its identity and function.
Luis Silva’s “A Fox’s Tale “is on view 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday to May 5 at G Fine Art, 1350 Florida Ave. NE.