I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Somehow or another, you get sucked into a décor store –– Pier 1 Imports, say, or Pottery Barn –– and as you are being dragged around the gorgeous canopy beds and elegant, sumptuous papasans, you begin salivating. Oh. Oh, my. To be surrounded by so many fine sticks of poplar wood and layers of colorful polyester is to be transported to another world, one where you lord over a mid-century modernist home in Westover Hills, maybe, surrounded by loving, caring family members, free from debt, and emancipated from worry. In a weird way, our domestic dreams form the aesthetic foundation of Devon Nowlin’s delicious exhibit of new work.
Hanging through June 20 at Artspace 111, Casual Luxury Complex gathers nearly two dozen paintings, photographs, and small sculptures that speak to the worst of us. Is material lust worse than the carnal kind? They’re both pretty bad. And yet, unlike porn, our desire for the most beautiful or at least the most sought-after clothes, shoes, or gadgets is unabashed and goes unpunished. Nowlin is here to check us.
Casual Luxury Complex features several brilliant color photographs of people “reading” what appear to be fashion magazines. The point of view is of a person sitting cross legged on the ground –– grass, carpeted floor, Navajo-print rug –– with the magazine open over his or her crotch area. In every spread, gorgeous models are looking gorgeous. What is the point? And, yes, there seems to be a point: that if you are not vigilant, Corporate America will take advantage of the tiniest slivers in your time –– chilling at the house, waiting at the dentist’s office, standing in line at the supermarket, sitting on the porcelain throne, riding on a plane –– to inject directly into your relaxed, impressionable subconscious imagery often only loosely affiliated with stuff that you cannot afford but, y’know, that you should be able to, you slacker. Five seconds may not mean much to us. To Exxon Mobil, General Electric, and Wells Fargo –– and American Apparel, Nordstrom, Victoria’s Secret, Polo Ralph Lauren, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the dozens of other companies that rule coolness –– that’s all the time they need.
The star of Casual Luxury Complex has to be Frank, a small black-and-white-checkered dog sculpture of polymer clay that “went missing” in late March during a group show at Artspace 111. (He has since been returned.) The lovable pooch pops up in several Casual Luxury Complex pieces, including the spellbinding “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” a sprawling oil on canvas that harks to the Devon Nowlin we all know and love, the precise photorealist who specializes in the human figure. In the 40-by-80-inch piece, a beautiful young blonde wearing a white top with spaghetti straps is shown in profile cradling Frank in a lush forest dripping with eerie greens and aquamarines (and patrolled by a shushing angel). Here, material and carnal desires get all mixed up, splendidly. You’ve never seen a painting like this.
Is aesthetic uniqueness the ultimate achievement? Not always, but there’s no denying that Nowlin long ago transcended mere technical bravura. Not long after earning her MFA from TCU, she co-founded HOMECOMING! Committee, a 13-member organization devoted to occasionally crowd-sourced or -inspired conceptual art. To raise awareness of public art’s precarious position in city budgets –– and in our consciousness –– Nowlin and company erected throughout town in 2013 an inflatable mobile modeled after “The Eagle,” the bright red 39-foot steel sculpture by Alexander Calder that for 19 years stood in front of The Tower (née the Bank One Building) before flying away, as the myth goes, in the middle of the night in 2000. (The piece has since been resting comfortably in Seattle.) Nowlin knows that photorealism will get you only so far, will keep a viewer engaged only so long, which is why she is applying her deft touch to mechanical imagery. One of the most striking pieces on display is “Neat and Nifty,” an oil on canvas of three similar green, leafy plants (bromeliads) in a horizontal row across a vibrant Navajo pattern. Why paint something you can just as easily take a picture of? Good question, but a careful viewer will notice a lot of life in the syrupy brushstrokes. In other words, photos only wish they could look this yummy.
In the gallery’s description of her work, the show’s intellectual underpinnings are made plain: “The intersection between art and commerce” –– Lionel Trilling’s “bloody crossroads” –– “is an important aspect of her work, where she is interested in drawing parallels between today’s art industry and the world of marketing, personal image, and cultural attainment.”
Yes, “Neat and Nifty” will set you back a cool $6,500. But there’s a difference between giving that amount to a local painter instead of Pier 1.
Or is there? Because somebody … no. Because some bodies have got to work the Saturday morning shift at Pier 1, right?
[box_info]Casual Luxury Complex by Devon Nowlin
Thru June 20 at Artspace 111, 111 Hampton St, FW. Free.