Even if you find them comical, graphic depictions of inner-city African American culture do not easily resist the tension between exploitation and social consciousness. And El Franco Lee II’s exhibit, “Liquid Analog,” at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Artist Residency, Centraltrak, offers no exception to this tensity.
Imagine the work of Ernie Barnes: full of smooth kinetic energy, exaggerated forms evoking verve, and subject matter depicting what was considered authentically black, beautiful, and sensuous. Now, filter that energy, form, and subject matter through contemporary hip hop culture, through comic book culture, through recent catastrophes like post-Katrina New Orleans. Do this and you might begin to grasp the look and timbre of Lee’s work, which he describes as “Urban Mannerist Pop-Art.”
The work comes across cruder than Barnes though, more immediate, more jarring, yet also more relevant. It has the potential to satirize norms and comment on events, and do so in a way that makes you uncertain of the equation of celebration to condemnation.
Compositionally, Lee’s work has a peculiar and intriguing sense of perspective and dimension. You find yourself looking into surreal spaces where the laws of physics bend, allowing for dynamic depictions of sporting events, gang beatings, and parties.
A spirit of whimsy takes precedence when the work riffs at the intersection of comic books and black culture, and fittingly so. But, when urban violence is the subject, that whimsy becomes a brutal reality in which no simple responses to violence or racism arise. And while these works might seem exploitative, or at least neglectful of more positive aspects of black culture, they are certainly effective in eliciting conversation.
What really sets the tone for the exhibition is the artist’s personality, which comes across in the show’s very presentation. You quickly spot Lee’s name writ high upon the gallery wall, in huge sky blue letters, announcing his appropriation of the space. You see an enormous amount of work, crowded together in seeming thematic clusters (which, curatorially, normally result in dissatisfying clutter, yet here it fits perfectly). And you also get a sense of Lee’s urgency and earnestness, as well as his humor and irony.
As it is not the easiest work to digest or relate to, I anticipate some gallery goers being unsure of how to read it. For those adept at working and laughing their way through discomfort, however, the work does not disappoint.
Andy Amato is a Dallas-based artist, writer and teacher
(This review originally appeared in Arts+Culture Magazine)