In my ideal world, the work in the current CentralTrak show Draftsmen of the Apocalypse would be the work collectors are rushing to buy. Completely unlikely, it would be an incredible sight: rich people’s decorators and art consultants tripping over each other to call dibs on these depictions of mayhem and misery. It feels like it’s been a long time since the benefactor class wanted to buy a piece of hell and put it on their wall, I suppose because at this point it would just be a reminder of what their politics have wrought. But nowadays new collectors shop for “art” the way they shop for a new watch, and they prefer benign decorative abstraction, and since money talks, there is a bottomless well of pandering art-school grads (and old pros) out there to make it for them.
But the exhibition space at CentralTrak is like a big, breathing testament to just how fucked up our world feels right now, PC be damned, and it’s vibrating with a kind of nihilism that feels one hundred percent honest. It reads like a room underwritten by dark prophets (as we head into midterm election day), and for a minute I almost felt like I was standing in the middle of some far-flung progeny of the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, where no artist is a hypocrite and every one of them pays the price for it. Many of the artists here are using the ugliest reality as their fodder, or some phantasmagorical take on reality, and it feels internally driven rather than externally thrill seeking or shock jockeying. I couldn’t help but think about how much more trustworthy these artists seem than some of the current crop of young regional abstractionists who are mostly just politicians spinning their burgeoning careers.
There are nine draftsmen in this Apocalypse, which is curated by CentrakTrak’s intrepid director Heyd Fontenot. Though every artist pulls some weight, the four who really set the tone are El Franco Lee II, Clay Stinnett, Thor Johnson, and an upstart (to my knowledge) with the nom de guerre Joachim West. There are a couple of non-Texans who fit right in: one is Memphis-based Alex Paulus with his carnival-colored grotesques and one outlier painting that looks like a New Yorker cover on a freakish April Fool’s Day, and Annabel Daou slips in like a haunted little cat with intricate line drawings (with vibrating text) that trickle out across paper like sinister incantations around daily observations.
Back to the four horsemen. El Franco Lee II’s ripped-from-the-headlines expressionist paintings are barely warped mirror reflections of what our society looks like lately, and the content is so unedited and overwhelming that to keep myself in check I kept thinking: Well, El Franco, don’t hold back on my account. A good example recalls the murder of James Byrd, Jr. in a propulsive scene of three black men (one is already decapitated) being dragged behind three pickup trucks while a host of southern rednecks gawk and laugh. There’s a garish violence or promise of violence and oppression in nearly every inch of his work in this show. You can walk alongside his canvases and play “name that abomination”: the Columbine massacre, Roy Horn’s tiger mauling, etc. It isn’t a fun game, but it is an authentic one.
Clay Stinnett exorcises his obsessions in a Technicolor explosion of a personalized genre, with allusions to the occult, exploitation movies, white-trash nostalgia, and peyote trippyness, and some of his mark making and brain content reminds me of vintage Gary Panter. Andy Don Emmons was trafficking in this content fifteen years ago at Gray Matters; there’s a familiar near-outsider feel to this kind of outpouring, and it feels so urgent that it’s like a pipeline to Stinnett’s id, and without the outlet you’d wonder how many ways he skins the cat. (Frankly, I would trust all of these artists to take better care of the cat than most pet sitters. They unapologetically give a damn, and there’s a humanist/romantic heart in that.)
Thor Johnson, post solo-show at the Ware:Wolf:Haus, returns with his freaky little Sculpey sculptures of slumped and disemboweled figures, but this time he’s upped the ante with the addition of two more fully realized, carved tutelary deities, one with a ripped and bleeding anus. There’s a therapeutic or post-traumatic (and completely uncategorizable) catharsis in this work.
Then there’s Joachim West. Here is a revelation: this guy draws obsessively, and while some of it is almost too literal, like a man floating in his living room attacked from all sides by monstrous embodiments of his personal demons a la Saint Anthony (drugs, gaming, porn, junk food—I sort of relate), much of his work, too, defies thematic categorization. His visual language is illustrative but refreshing, and it skips around. There are intricate, Chapman-Bros-esque crowd scenes of Nazi-like executions and havoc; young bodies left behind what must have been some unnamed specter of death. He’s a fountain of filth and compulsive oversharing. There’s a lot in it and it’s exhilarating.
Fontenot’s salon-style installation works well for this show. It communicates a barely contained detonation of wretchedness, and gives the feeling that there’s so much more where this all came from. Indeed, there is, and in spirit I could feel the presence of the aforementioned Emmons, as well as Celia Eberle, Tom Sale, Michael Bise, some facets of Sterling Allen, and many others too—Texas cultivates a lively Theater of the Damned or Grand Guignol that rarely finds the traction it should. But these artists usually don’t play by any rules, and too much traction might feel like a bear trap to them.
If Texas had a pavillion at the Venice Biennale, this is the kind of thing I would put in it. Again, a lot of it feels, despite the artists’ art-school backgrounds, just this side of obsessive self-taught art— the same roundabout way that Panter/Mike Kelly/Raymond Pettibon’s work rubs up against it. The Webbs in Waxahachie could parse this in their sleep. I find it almost astonishing that El Franco Lee II recently finished his MFA in Houston, because he so clearly escaped the art-school lobotomy. And I didn’t have to conjure Trenton Doyle Hancock because he’s actually in the show—one ghoulish little red painting holding its own in the middle of one of the salon groupings.
A few things kept coming to mind as I looked around: one was Michael Bise’s Alamo essay from last summer, about the heart of darkness of living in Texas. And also a quote from the imperfect but compelling “True Detective” series, one that resonated with me the way it must have with all the other heathens watching when it aired, if anything because I’d not heard this kind of sentiment come out of fictional television character (not even on HBO). It’s from Rust Cohle as he watches worshippers at a tent revival, after Marty has tried to defend religion as a way to keep people on the straight and narrow.
Cohle says: “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?” The artists in this Apocalypse show are looking reality right in its demon eye every day and saying: I know you. Let’s dance.