Weebles Wobble and Boy Do They Fall Down

“Tony Dotson: Shock and Awe” (up through April 9, 2011 at PAC Gallery in Walnut Hills) pushes Dotson’s smart-alecky yet innocently streamlined aesthetic into newer and fiercer territories. The show comes off like Philip Guston took all of his gritty/funky oeuvre through a car-wash and arranged each piece in a parking lot for an impromptu flea market. Like Guston, Dotson uses composition to eliminate decoration, and most of the images, painted in house-paint hues, come off as simple and egalitarian as illustrations in elementary-school text books.

That simplicity is what woos you into feeling like you are about to learn how to spell or do simple division, and then suddenly you spy the darkness on the edge of town: the box of lime and hand-cuffs in Clown Cut Out and Paste, the little girl about to get it in Amber Alert, the sweet stuffed-toy mascots on their way to Auschwitz in No One Is Spared. And so on. Over 30 small, medium and large paintings that resonate meanings close to punch-lines in a Farelly Brothers movie and yet have a stark creepy grace like stained-glass windows made specifically for a back-woods church.

Dotson’s persona in the works is equal-opportunity a-hole: a stand-up comedian like Tosh.0 who gleefully shatters taboos while also creating new ways to rid the world of hypocrisy. His execution is astute: gothic lines to create shape and structure painted in carefully and quickly. The results are paintings that get to the point without a lot of foreplay: a down-to-business clarity sans any Neo-Expressionist BS or a coat of lacquer to pretty things up.

And while you might think Dotson is telling the same joke over and over, he is also stubbornly dedicated to allowing that one joke to splinter into hot little sparks that burn your eyes. The laughs might seem to come off cheap sometimes, but then you realize you are actually laughing not just because of the lowdown humor but also because there’s a method to his madness. Case in point, the concise and mean-spirited little number, Snack Pack, in which Sesame-Street sincerity collides with gallows humor—a snake crawling up a tree toward a branch where baby birds are singing. In one image Dotson satirizes innocence and appropriates nature’s vicious symmetry. Fischer Price Slavery Set pushes the innocence/experience motif into Saturday Night Live territory, without losing the pathos. It’s exactly as advertised, Fisher Price figurines reenacting or possibly reliving the slave trade. Cold-hearted irony for sure, but it’s also somehow deviously right. Weebles wobble and boy do they fall down.

The ones that don’t work, like Green Hornet Kato Mask, Japanese Monster Movie, and the slapdash sculptural pieces with words like Hate and Fear scribbled on them, have a consumerist cynicism not a philosophical one: they’re like posters or toys you’d find in Spencer’s Gifts, not pushed far enough to have double-meanings, and they go flat the minute you pay attention to them.

The majority of the works work though, and it’s a joy to witness all that Sturm-and-Drang turned into carefully constructed hieroglyphs that remind you of how simple and wrong the world can be. While he strives to eliminate the decorative, Dotson comes up with devious little tableaus that are as pretty as a picturebook. The dangers and shock-values of each painting increase due to his dedication to that simplicity. Inspired by outsider artists, Dotson’s work does not pay attention to that canon as much as parodies the way most people view outsider art, as a sort of “kid’s table” of the art world. Dotson wants to make outsider art the “adult’s table” feast: a violent, drunken Thanksgiving dinner with John Wayne Gacy at the head of the table, ready to carve the turkey.

– Keith Banner

Tony Dotson: Shock and Awe at PAC Gallery, 2540 Woodburn Ave., Cincinnati, OH. Phone: 513-321-5200. Through April 9.


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