At Front Gallery, "Love Man" Has Real Heart

Justin Brown Durand's new drawings at Front Gallery are inspired by Valentine's Day, but don't expect any hearts, flowers or anything remotely resembling your typical saccharine romance. Though there is tons of pink.

For "Love Man," gallery owner Sharon Engelstein reached out to Durand to specifically make a show to run during the Hallmark holiday. The artist then says he put himself in a "love trance," looking to romance, lust and passion for inspiration. The result of that trance shows the three at play in raw works that are alternately creepy, strange and oddly alluring.

The word "guts" comes repeatedly to mind throughout the show of a dozen or so drawings. The subjects of Durand's paintings are exposed, both literally and emotionally -- naked, with outlines of bones and arteries dressing up their limbs. The hearts here are outside the body, bleeding and still beating.

The drawings are like R. Crumb meets Picasso -- black and white ink sketches of bodies with their proportions, well, out of proportion. In one piece, the subject's head is significantly smaller than the rest of the body, as if all his energy is focused on his torso. In another, the legs of a woman are stunted, while her arms are longer than both legs combined. In all of them, the hands are intricately drawn and are often the biggest, most dominant feature. It's as if Durand's drawing attention to the source of his own livelihood, as well as emphasizing the sense of touch in human love and relationships, which can be both kind and damaging.

The subjects themselves display a wide range of romantic states -- one couple is in rapture, embracing tenderly. Another is lying straight as a board, dead-looking, displaying no sense of intimacy despite their mutual nakedness. "Moccasins" is one of the most memorable, if also alarming, pieces -- it shows an anonymous couple, their faces masked by long, flowing hair, in a heated moment. Both are naked save for their moccasins, and one is being dismembered, the torso cut in half and guts being pulled out. That gruesome scene is immediately followed by the touching "Virgins" -- the image of a couple embracing, gazing into each others' eyes, with the words "I never thought tonight would ever be this close to me" coming from the man's mouth.

Durand uses pretty simple materials for his drawings -- crayons, pastels, markers, pencil and pen. It's as if he made them during a school arts and crafts session. Any teacher would be a little shocked by the results, though high marks would be given to their originality and no-holds-barred honesty. Love is a many-splendored thing, someone once said while most likely in his own love trance. But it also can be a little strange, and not always pretty.

"Love Man" at Front Gallery, 1412 Bonnie Brae Street, now through March 17. Open Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call 713-298-4750 or visit the gallery's website.

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