The Mother Lode
A balding man in a snap-front Western shirt glares out at the viewer as if daring somebody to say something. Standing in a little girl's room, he's got a rolled-up newspaper clenched in his fist and behind him, surrounded by inanely grinning stuffed animals, is the limp form of a small dog. Dark splatters speckle the walls. The drawing is by Michael Bise, and it's titled The Puppy Song.
All families have stories, and if you dig deeply enough, they all have dark ones. Michael Bise deals in stories. In past exhibitions, he has shown narrative drawings based on childhood events. Rich with pop-cultural detail, they told sometimes painful tales but often with a wry humor. In "Blood Poisoning," his current show at Moody Gallery, Bise isn't telling his own stories anymore. He's telling his mother's. Any humor discernible in his current work is of the blackest sort — only the Irish and Slavs need apply.
This work is different in other ways as well. Bise is making drawings about things he never witnessed, and the images are rendered differently. His work has always had a cinematic flair, but this is intensified in many of the new works, which feel like film stills. In The Puppy Song (all works are from 2011), the man is drawn partially cropped, as if he was captured just before he walked out of camera range.
In Uncle Corky, you feel like the camera is slowly zooming in on a crime scene. A man is slumped in the seat of a '70s-era Oldsmobile parked in the driveway in front of a house. Blood has run down from his nose, and it's splattered across the window of the car. He's dead. Two men in overalls appear in the distorted reflection on the side of the car, standing in front of what looks like a Model T. Their clothes and their car don't match the time period of the Olds — they're like ghosts from the past gazing upon the scene. Like Puppy Song, the image leads the viewer to imagine the events preceding and following the scene. It feels like Bise is really reveling in his directorial control.
The narrative really takes a backseat to the work's formal beauty in Heather's Baptism. In it, two pale figures are surrounded by an ominous expanse of black water. The newspaper-clutching man from The Puppy Song holds the arm of a young woman as he prepares to submerge her under the water in an immersion baptism. Bise has built up the graphite so densely that the paper almost looks burnished. You can see layer upon layer, and the subtle texture of the swirling marks creates the feeling of the water as a thick, roiling mass; the surface just sucks you in. The water looks as black and menacing as an oil slick.
Bise's past works, the ones from his own memories, have been packed with rich and telling details. Here, the image is simply comprised of the figures, the water and the horizon, but the combination is extremely powerful. Additionally, Bise is being much more selective in the way he renders things. The artist always loses himself in the labor-intensive patterns of wood grain, wallpaper, fabric and brick walls, while his figures are as sparely and cleanly delineated as possible. But here the figures are faintly drawn, maybe even a little too sketchy in a couple areas. However, the contrast between the almost tactile solidity of water and the ghost-like figures is incredibly evocative.
Other works are set up like or directly drawn from photographs. Children is based on Bise's third-grade class photo. It's the standard group portrait set up with students in the front sitting in chairs, the rest standing on risers behind them. The kids in the chairs dangle their legs, their feet encased in tennis shoes with giant Velcro tabs. Although it's totally stylistically different, Bise's work reminds me of Marlene Dumas's painting of her grade-school class, The Teacher (Sub a) (1987). It was on view a few years back at the Menil and conveyed a similar blend of innocence, awkwardness and angst. Throughout Bise's drawing are white circles where he didn't draw anything — they're like reflections, or maybe redactions. One of them completely obscures his eight-year-old face.
All the rest of the smiling faces in Bise's work are just a little off, and there is something kind of blank and unsettling about the eyes — actually, about the eyes of everyone in Bise's drawings. There is a little gimmick artists employ when they draw eyes. They let a little bit of the white of the paper show through in the pupils, which mimics a reflection in the eye and adds a spark of life. The eyes Bise is drawing remind me of old cartoon characters — Nancy's large black circle eyes or Little Orphan Annie's empty white circle eyes. I'm not sure why it works in his images, but it does. The technique seems to keep all the characters from the present day and relegated to the realm of memory.
Mom and Dad reads like a photograph, whether it was based on one or not. It's like an American Gothic set in a living room, but it shows a husband and wife instead of a father and daughter. It's an elderly couple with hard, unsmiling features. The wife sports big Pentecostal hair and pursed lips, and the husband is the same man with the newspaper, although here he's much older and much more shrunken. Above them is a big picture of Jesus. The man, the woman and JC all have the same dark, lightless eyes. Behind them is a rich array of bric-a-brac on the fireplace mantle. This is the kind of detail that Bise is known for. In front of the mantle clock is a trio of hokey cherubs, and there's a tiny rocking horse. Then there is a figure that looks like some kind of African wood sculpture. It's a little incongruous with the white American decorator items; you wonder how they came by it. Maybe in the way that a lot of fundamentalist Christian Americans come into contact with other cultures — mission trips to convert those cultures?
All the work in the show has you looking for clues. The satisfying formal qualities of Bise's work can get lost in the often provocative imagery, and seeing it as stemming from what the artist sees as the memories and point of view of his mother makes you want to know the stories behind the scene. But Bise's family dynamics aren't the point. These images exist independently of their source material. Bise's work is evolving in a very interesting, but risky, way.
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