I say “surprise” because Davis’ own recent work — paintings, primarily, and a spate of mixed media collages — seems almost anti-figural, with its appealing superfluity of color for color’s sake. But for the occasional suggestion of a landscape, she tends toward the non-representational, celebrating and attacking light and shadow with deep, meditative exploration of hues. What I’m saying is, it’s abstract stuff.
Hence my surprise at her curatorial choices. As for the fascinating aspect of “Role Playing: Using the Figure in Contemporary Art,” Davis hopes that the myriad distinctive styles on display will make that plain to gallery visitors.
Opening with a reception from 5-9 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12, the show runs through Saturday, March 13. Participating artists include Bradford Daly, Wes Frazer, Bonard Hughins, Chad Johnson, Megan Kimber, Celeste Laborde, Jonathan Purvis and Michael Swann. For opening night, Brad Davis and a pair of artists known as the HoWaYa Klann will create a site-specific, interactive, multimedia installation that includes sound; gallery visitors will be encouraged — expected, even — to interact with it, thereby becoming figures in contemporary art themselves.
“Role Playing” is a follow-up to “Edge of Winter,” a 14-artist exhibit that ran Jan. 9-30 at Lite Box and marked Kate Davis’ debut as guest curator. In terms of attendance and sales, the show was successful enough that Davis got an opportunity to organize this month’s exhibit.
“When I was curating the first show, I got far more response than I expected,” she says. “I thought I would have just one shot at curating a show here. When another opportunity came up, it gave me a chance to connect with so many artists that I wanted to work with.”
The eight artists in the show have contributed photography, painting and mixed media works, all of which showcase the figure in some way. “They’re not necessarily all realistic or painterly — they’re not figurative in that way,” Davis explains. “But in each of them, the figure plays a role. That’s where the name of the show came from.”
I have called her a few days ahead of the opening, and when she first answers the phone I can hear the clatter and chatter of artists in the background. She explains that they’re talking about how and where to hang a piece by Chad Johnson — a heavy, mixed-media collage on wood that Davis describes as “really fun,” in part because it includes a lot of elements in addition to the human figure and is such an interesting contrast to the two works on paper that Johnson also has in the show. She offers a brisk description of the disparate methods the other participating painters have for depicting the figural. On Michael Swann: “Classic but surrealist.” On Megan Kimber: “Distorted, illustrative style.” On Celeste Laborde: “Vivid and watery, with washes of ink.”
“In one of Bo Hughins' pieces, the painting looks like a photograph that has been reduced to CMYK,” she says. “It’s amazing. It’s like a pointillist painting, but it also looks like a blown-up color photo from a newspaper — an image that only exists as thousands of dots of color.”
Photography, even as an art medium, is often purely representational, but for “Role Playing” Davis has selected works by photographers striving to do more with their cameras.
“Even though I have three photographers in the show, the way each of them addresses the figure is different. Wes Frazer focuses on figures as familiar. His pictures are portraits — even if you don’t know the people in them, you can study the faces and they become people you could know. In Brad Daly’s work, there are anonymous figures: there’s a narrative quality to the figures because of the settings they’re in — the circus, the rodeo, a chicken farm. In Jonathan Purvis’s pictures, he has put together the figures more as patterns instead of people.”
In fact, Davis says, it was Purvis’s work that initially allowed her to focus on and develop the figure theme for the group show.
“When the figure is a pattern — when it’s color and light instead of a direct portrait, that’s something unexpected,” she says.
“Role Playing: Using the Figure in Contemporary Art” opens on Friday, Feb. 12, with an artists’ reception from 5-9 p.m. The event will include a wine tasting featuring a selection of wines from Stephen Humphreys of Athens Imports. Lite Box Gallery is located at 2825 Second Ave. South in the Pepper Place Complex. Gallery hours are Wed-Fri noon-5 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; there will be extended hours on Thursday, Feb. 18, with the gallery open until 8 p.m. Gallery phone: (205) 716-1665; for appointments, call (205) 913-5284. You can also join the Litebox Gallery group on Facebook.