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Conning the world 

Two fine artists dredged the subconscious and came up with 'A Little Nightmare Before Christmas'

The life trajectories of artists Lee Harvey Roswell and Edward Walton Wilcox are, at first glance anyway, nothing alike. Wilcox was raised in the tropical climes of West Palm Beach, Fla. Roswell says he’s from the town of Freefall, New York, a place Google maps reveals to be rather existentially challenged. That is to say, it isn’t there. It’s as if he invented it to see if journalists are paying attention. Perhaps “Freefall” is more like Roswell’s metaphorical origin, the place of uncertainty from which his funny, twisted, tragic, surrealist-inspired images spring forth. But here we are, already digressing in the first paragraph! Already wandering into oblivion! Drowsing amongst the poppies! Let us begin anew.

- BACCUS FERMENTUS: -  - ARTWORK BY LEE HARVEY ROSWELL; PHOTO COURTESY OF VALE FINE ART
  • ARTWORK BY LEE HARVEY ROSWELL; PHOTO COURTESY OF VALE FINE ART
  • BACCUS FERMENTUS:

The lives of Roswell and Wilcox are markedly different. Wilcox, a painter and sculptor, enjoyed a happy, stable, tropical childhood. He went on to receive his BFA in painting from the University of Florida, where he also received the Presidential Award for Excellence in the Arts. He later moved to Los Angeles, thinking his paintings would dry faster there. And let’s clear this up: Wilcox is also the husband of 17 years of gallery owner Madeline Vale, who also represents him.

Roswell, on the other hand, describes his youth as “troubled.” A repeat runaway who once struggled with drugs, Roswell dropped out of high school his sophomore year. But to call him uneducated would be incorrect. The references he makes in his paintings indicate he’s well-versed in art history, and his technical ability is far more advanced than that of many formally trained painters. (In our interview, the artist recalled spending days in a library, asking of himself each time, “What is interesting to me today?”) He once worked for his uncle’s sign painting business.

But despite vastly different backgrounds, the two artists—whose work is seen side by side in the show “A Little Nightmare Before Christmas” at Vale Fine Art—seem to briefly meet in a common place, as if one of Roswell’s clowns, fleeing the cruelty of circus life, had wandered into one of Wilcox’s eerie, amber landscapes. Both artists create work that is dark and often unsettling, though they approach this place from different angles. In Roswell’s art, there may be the echoes of a truly horrible past—one it seems he’d rather forget about, writing off the earliest stages of his life as “Freefall” and moving on. Wilcox’s work, by contrast, conveys a longing for the darkness and uncertainty so foreign to his Florida upbringing.

Wilcox’s sepia-hued tempera and bitumen works, often evocative of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance paintings, seem to carry the weight of centuries. Viewing his portraiture, it’s easy to imagine its subjects died of some horrifically fascinating 14th century malady. But Wilcox’s tragically romantic landscapes are his most enduring subject matter. In another painter’s hands, the pastoral scenes he depicts could be beautiful and nothing else, but in Wilcox’s serene vistas, something sinister always seems to be lurking.

There is death, waiting in the shadows. Here is a burning windmill; there, a slowly sinking boat.

(Unfortunately, the singular tarnish on the works’ Old World glory appears occasionally in silly fake-Dutch titles such as Der Sinkken Yacht and Der Burnin Mill, the only thing that forces viewers to remember, “Oh, that’s right—he’s not a old master after all, he’s a guy from Florida with a serious Rembrandt crush.”)

- LAUGHING STOCK: -  - ARTWORK BY EDWARD WALTON WILCOX; PHOTO COURTESY OF VALE FINE ART
  • ARTWORK BY EDWARD WALTON WILCOX; PHOTO COURTESY OF VALE FINE ART
  • LAUGHING STOCK:

Both Wilcox and Roswell draw heavily from the subconscious when working, whether creating spontaneously or, in Wilcox’s case, reacting to a particularly telling dream.

A sculpture of Wilcox’s called Beggar in a Bed of Finery had such an origin. When the artist recounted to his wife a dream he’d had of a homeless man reclining in an opulent bedroom, she immediately identified the man as Wilcox’s impression of himself. And the more he thought about it, he said, the more it made sense to him.

“I feel like I’m getting away with something,” he admitted at a recent visit to the gallery. “I don’t even feel like I’m working. I just get to make things. And people pay for it, and it’s just fantastic.”

Here is another place where Wilcox and Roswell intersect. Both accomplished artists, they seem to struggle with feelings of unworthiness, as if uneasily waiting to be discovered as frauds for making a living doing what they love.

“I’ve definitely got self-doubt,” Roswell said, “even in the sense of conning the world sometimes. But I also feel I have been through a lot, to where I feel justified in making a living.”

At 19, Roswell moved from New York to San Francisco, where he became a street painter. (There, he said, he was regularly approached by crusty old Kennedy assassination buffs. “My name just drew them to me like flies,” he recalled, smiling at the memory. “And I got some interesting theories.”)

He also spiraled into serious drug addiction, which eventually led to a life on the street. In an attempt to turn his life around, he relocated to Seattle, where his drug issues and the homelessness that followed quickly on its heels once again began to consume his life. He moved back to New York to regroup, and, in 2000, moved again to San Francisco. This time, though, he was clean. He began focusing intently on painting. As a former street artist, Roswell lacked a body of work, but in the roughly 12 years separating then from now, he has built up an impressive collection of oil paintings.

While each work is a beautifully rendered, complete thought, some are so lovely, so wildly imaginative, they’re almost physically painful to look at. Pieces like Oh, Death, Where is Thy Sting? and The Curtain & the Crow, both overt nods to Dali, are such works. Bacchus Fermentus, a Surrealist riff on a classical image, is another.

But Roswell—who often dresses in pinstripe suits, gels his mustache, carries a cane, and has been known to paint his face like a mime—has also got a thing for clowns, comedians, and slapstick comedy. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are among his muses, and he often employs clowns in his work as creatures capable of, he says, “expressing the human conundrum in a very eloquent way.”

“People that make that their profession … usually behind the scenes they’ve got really sad lives,” he added, referencing W.C Fields and Keaton, his idol, as examples.

- DREAMS, CONSPIRACIES, SHAME, AND SURREALISM :  “A Little Nightmare Before Christmas,” the art of Lee Harvey Roswell and Edward Walton Wilcox, hangs at Vale Fine Art, located at 619 12th St. in Paso Robles, through Jan. 17, 2012. Visit valefineart.com or call (310) 795-4680 for more information. -
  • DREAMS, CONSPIRACIES, SHAME, AND SURREALISM : “A Little Nightmare Before Christmas,” the art of Lee Harvey Roswell and Edward Walton Wilcox, hangs at Vale Fine Art, located at 619 12th St. in Paso Robles, through Jan. 17, 2012. Visit valefineart.com or call (310) 795-4680 for more information.

The sad, chained clown in Roswell’s The Ramblin’ OHM is answered by Wilcox’s Laughing Stock, which depicts a skeleton with a white bag over its head with garish, clowny features painted over it. Themes of guilt and shame surface often in the show, whether they stem from (totally unfounded) feelings of inadequacy or from Wilcox’s admitted interest in antiquated methods of punishment and humiliation—something neither artist sees as out of the ordinary.

“The painters I don’t understand are the painters that can paint these saccharine scenes of vineyards and beautiful barns,” Wilcox said, “and these funny little settings, almost devoid of any social conflict, or any internal workings. That I don’t understand. So I’m sure they could look at some of the work I’ve produced and”—he affected an innocent, concerned tone—“don’t understand how I could go there.

“I don’t think of it as troubling,” he continued. “I think the whole dark romance is just so intriguing and so curious. There’s always something afoot that needs to be navigated or understood. That, to me, is an interesting painting.”

Arts Editor Anna Weltner is smiling on the outside. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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