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Kelly Towles: Where There's A Wall, There's a Way

'Underdog' Places the D.C. Artist in the Urban Baroque Fraternity

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page C05

A decidedly eye-popping strain of urban baroque has flooded recent biennials and museum shows. Its practitioners wallpaper rooms with graffiti and doodles, hang pictures over murals and sometimes even paint the floor. The artists' extravagant moves derive from street art, graffiti writers and sticker stickerers, the guerrilla artists who decorate (or deface) our streets and alleyways.

Some disciples you might have heard of: Franz Ackermann, a German with a psychedelic flair for allover painting. Barry McGee, a doodler of heavy-lidded men painted on empty bottles, paper or panel and hung over wall-size murals. And the movement's current darling: Assume Vivid Astro Focus, the one-man artist with the collective name who wowed last year's Whitney Biennial with a room of groovy lights and far-out Technicolor pictures.

Kelly Towles's solo show at Adamson centers on boxing-gloved antiheroes painted onto the gallery's walls. Prints on wood panels hang from them. (Courtesy Adamson Gallery)

Now Washington can claim its very own acolyte: Kelly Towles, a 28-year-old graphic designer for Whole Foods who opened his first solo show at David Adamson several weeks back. Called "Underdog," the exhibition encompasses not just salable digital prints and one-of-a-kind mixed-media works on wood, but also a suite of vivid wall drawings establishing both the "Underdog" concept and Towles's inclusion in the urban baroque fraternity.

Towles and his ilk domesticate street-based art forms they admire -- and occasionally practice -- bringing the urban mark-maker into the gallery and turning street style into art world commodity. For "Underdog," Towles painted a small army of large-scale antiheroes directly onto Adamson's walls.

Nearly identical of visage and painted in Easter-bright colors, they tower over gallery visitors. A generous heart might term them ugly ducklings; crueler mouths would say they're hideous. Hollow of eye, pegged of leg, thick of waist and gangly of limb, Towles's Underdogs are a macabre bunch. Each wears a pair of boxing gloves -- an effect more Rocky the Squirrel than Rocky Balboa, since the gloves weigh down their arms like lead mittens. I won't even begin to describe their demented orthodontia.

Yet the figures charm, in a way. Certainly they're non-threatening; their sloping shoulders and feebleness keep us at ease, even if a few Underdogs stand as tall as the gallery's generous ceilings. Their cumulative effect: a gang of narcoleptic, underweight and zombie-eyed adolescents.

Against this backdrop hang domestically scaled digital prints and pictures drawn directly on, or printed and stuck onto, wood panel. The wood panel pictures, though not exact replicas of the Underdogs, bear figures with a family resemblance. Many are painted as portraits on thin sections of tree trunks -- oval wood panels framed by bark and hung from twine nailed to the wall.

The presentation and the medium (Towles bought the panels at a craft store) lend the work a Montessori school feel. It's a self-conscious youthfulness that reminds me of the Canadian collective Royal Art Lodge -- charming, certainly, but perhaps a little too cute.

Meatier ideas coarse through Towles's digital prints, which feature a more sinister cast of characters. Based on Postal Service address labels (a nod to street art sticker makers) that Towles scanned, enlarged and manipulated digitally, the pictures take a more political turn. Each bears the same date, September 2001, which turns Towles's figures -- here a Red Army soldier, there an angry pit bull -- into political references. In this context, the peg-legged Underdogs begin to look a bit like visions of war wounded.

Towles's political bent situates him as an heir to mid-1980s East Village graffiti artists, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat among them, who were themselves a liberal-minded bunch. But Towles's work also links up with comic artists of the depraved sort, as epitomized by Robert Crumb. It's an exciting brew that arises not so much from individual works as from the power of his many images. Harnessing the itchiness and energy of youth, Towles has made the gallery zing.

'Time and Materials' at Irvine

Back in the 1960s, when Process art was big, artists wanted to know what happened when time passed: how natural processes, and certain materials, changed over time. Gravity was a major ingredient, as were natural processes such as condensation and decomposition. Like watching an amateur magician at work, artmaking back then was about anticipation -- not to mention uncertainty, since nobody, including the artist, really knew how a piece would turn out.

The movement's latter-day followers, three of whom are on view in Irvine Contemporary Art's "Time and Materials," attempt to update and vary the classic approach. This trio concerns itself with making work that implies the passage of time and underscores the artmaking process.

Like contemporary versions of Man Ray's photograms, Andrew Lyght sets rusting objects on paper and lets oxidation do its thing. The objects seep rust into the paper, in lieu of pigment. Since he's got a penchant for geometric shapes, Lyght's compositions counter the globby, organic forms produced in so much classic Process work. These half-circles, rectangles and saw-toothed edges render abstraction from organic processes; it's intriguing in concept but dull on paper.

Soledad Salame makes large-scale poured resin sculptures with beetles and butterflies suspended inside. They look like oversize amber shards picked up on an archaeological dig. All seem out of place in a gallery setting, as if they'd be better off outdoors (as they have been in the past). One work, seated in a metal stand, feels worrisomely close to oversize stained glass.

In the gallery's back room hang John Gasper's monochromatic canvases. To make them, he applies layer upon layer of oil and wax, which he moves around with knife or brush. The endless hours he must have spent applying them may have satisfied his creative itch, but the actions don't pay off for his audience.

Kelly Towles at David Adamson Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-628-0257, to Jan. 29.

Time and Materials at Irvine Contemporary Art, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Open house with artists Jan. 8, 1-4 p.m., 202-332-8767, to Jan. 15.

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