Freaks R Us

Cartoons with teeth in Hyde Park

Would this painting match my couch? This question, cynically maligned in the art world, seems to me a fair opening query in response to the paintings of Kathie Olivas and Brandt Peters currently on view at Matthews Fine Art Gallery. Or more to the point, who will buy this cartoon grotesquery?

Their paintings are scaled to fit any living room wall, and priced affordably. The carnival imagery is recognizable, the colors bright. You could hang one over the couch knowing that while watching television, your back would be turned to the monstrous yet cuddly portraits and their disturbing associations.

Both artists work in a familiar style - the baby doll, stuffed toy, cartoon, creep show school - rooted in pop art, surrealism, illustration and animation. Names that the artists find inadequate but are used to describe the style are "Lowbrow," "Underground" and "Pop-Surrealism." I suggest Puerealism, although it's not so catchy.

Weeble-ish animals and children populate Olivas' canvases. These overstuffed bunnies, boys and girls may have started out cute, but trussed up in muzzles and dunce caps, limbless in droopy-footed pajamas, mouths zipped or bolted shut, they are ultimately repulsive. The characters' utter repression - speechless and immobilized - does not manage to inspire sympathy. They are players in a nursery freak show engendering voyeuristic guilt, suggesting fetishism and a dangerous hint of abuse. The boys and girls' ineffectual victimhood raises the specter of sadomasochism, yet their weirdness leaves the viewer an out.

We don't want to get it. We'll just look through the peephole at the solitary confinement cell of the subconscious. This is brave territory. Olivas illustrates ancient taboos in a seductive and childlike style. You may not want to go there but it is an oddly familiar place.

Peters' muscular and active illustrations retain a cartoon quality that provides more levity and storytelling. While anxiety pervades his pictures in the weaponry of tanks, swords and hooks, the characters remain on the animated page rather than invading your psyche. Peters' macho men and pin-up girls retain the humor and exaggeration of classic comic illustration.

Olivas and Peters met at Ybor City's goth club The Castle four years ago. Peters, the son of two artists, grew up in Los Angeles and has worked in the film industry as an illustrator and animator. Olivas received her MFA from USF and managed a gallery where she showed and collaborated with a group of "Lowbrow" Tampa artists. The two were living and working together within a month of meeting, and married within a year.

Not only do they live and make art together, but they have day jobs creating sets and props for the same theme park design company. The connection between their art predated their meeting, but has deepened in the work they have created since.

Recurrent characters, disguises and props are shared by the two. The storytelling aspect of their commercial work spills into the paintings, in their resemblance to flipbooks or animation cells. Their work, similar in illustrative technique and pop culture references, has fed on their partnership; a number of works in the current show are collaborations.

Olivas explains, "Our characters are alter egos for us. We have also created characters that represent each other in a way." Peters' homage to his wife is "Miss Content," a girl with a Minnie Mouse hair bow and shoes (on eight motion-blurred legs) with a hook for one hand and parrot puppet in the other. "The boy figure in my new work is based on Brandt," she says. The boy's head is cut in layers, revealing bird's eggs, or topped with a dunce cap and propellered beanie. Bolted plates or zippers silence him.

Peters and Olivas both use nostalgia to draw the viewer into their work. Brandt's cartoon style, and both artists' toys and characters are of the 1930s era, rather than the 1980s of their own childhood, giving the nostalgia a remove of several generations. The vintage imagery escapes sentimentality through the artists' torturous transformations. Yet kitsch acts as a barrier to their true experience and expression of contemporary culture - we're looking at a past that is not directly theirs.

The "Underground" label is hardly accurate at a time when cartoon imagery and pop culture permeate the International art scene and the commercial print, video and film market. This kind of edgy work is filling the galleries of New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Even cutesy anime is showing a darker side in the work of young Japanese artists. But an Olivas puppy or a Peters bat punctures the retro-pop label with a humor that is pitch black.

Matthews Gallery owner Albert Burruezo tells me the works are selling. We'll see if Tampa Bay can offer enough of a market, and enough edge, to keep these artists.

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