Esther Pearl Watson: Galactic Plains
Gregorio Escalante Gallery
May 28 to June 26, 2016
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, JUL. 2016
In the simplest of terms, this is a chronicle of family life in small town America. Clearly, the setting is somewhere in the USA. There are clues: like a faithfully rendered miniature Taco Bell sign by a roadside in the distance. There’s a dad, mom, assorted kids — one being the artist as a young girl — and a likely grandmother, a row of flowers along the bottom of a frame, as in the approach a child might use to establish the foreground. The paintings refer to a suburban coming of age story, flavored by an outward air of innocence. But wait. In the sky, hovering over the heads of the family members, there are strange shapes. UFOs keep popping up: a recurring theme in both night and day skies. Then, in one painting, the kids are depicted dumpster diving with their dad. In another, they are in Italy on a sort of archeological survey — except instead of searching for artifacts, they’re looking for skulls.
In Galactic Plains — predominantly paintings, with a few three-dimensional cutout works mounted on pedestals for a sculptural effect — Esther Pearl Watson pulls us into an astonishing narrative presented as if from a child’s point of view. This is visual memoir. The series is a vehicle through which the artist revisits episodes from her unconventional childhood, propelled by an eccentric but apparently charismatic father who not only believed in UFOs, but actually built them in the backyard. Soaked in narrative that enchants even where disturbing threads glimmer through, Watson’s paintings require little need for interpretation, with painted captions and descriptive titles, which provide detailed insight into the often bizarre story behind the images.
"Somewhere More Private" (2016) depicts the family on moving day. Four kids gather toys off a lawn, while the mother carries a baby. The father, decked out in a cowboy hat, loads the trunk of a yellow car. A caption on the upper right makes it clear: Wylie, Texas, 1988. We moved somewhere more private so Gene Watson could design the future of transportation.
In "Texas to Florida" (2016), the dad is portrayed on a bike under a dusky Florida sky, a police car with headlights glaring, just before the moment of apprehension. Centered in the starry evening sky, a large glittery pink striped UFO looms above. The caption explains: Sachse, Texas, 1989. Our Dad borrowed a bike he found behind the gas station. Then he rode from Texas to Florida until the cops brought him home.
The paintings take the viewer for a ride, convincingly conveying a sense of fantasy and a sort of convoluted child’s sense of reality, strangely entwined. The work fits into the category of outsider art, given its outward simplicity, flat areas of color, and the way it so adroitly channels a childlike vantage point. Still this is outsider or naïve art anchored by formal training. While the paintings are composed in the straightforward manner of a child narrator, they also show evidence of the seasoned hand of someone who attended art school, learned perspective and other integral principals of drawing. Indeed, the artist earned a BFA in Illustration from Art Center College of Design (where she currently teaches) and an MFA from California Institute of the Arts. A studied technical acumen and sophistication of approach informs the artist’s seemingly folk art sensibility.
Whimsical and poignant, there’s a lot of dreaming in these paintings. Watson often alludes to the hope for a greater place and time ahead, as in"Sparkle and Shine" (2016) in which three cows stand under a starry night sky, dominated by a dramatic UFO. The caption: One day the future will sparkle and shine up the night.
In "Dream Home" (2016) the family is gathered on a path in a nighttime landscape with lush trees in the background, flowers in the foreground and a fleet of metallic silver spaceships above. The hopeful caption reads: Comanche, Texas, 1989. This is where I would build a dream home. A sense of wishful hope permeates these works, as in a child’s worldview before the loss of innocence. Happily, the artist’s innocent vantage point appears to have remained intact into adulthood. WM
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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