’m obsessed with the title of Thunder-Sky Inc.’s latest show, Reverse Psychology. The name, a play on two artists’ opposite aesthetics and themes, doesn’t work for me — or does it? Should I be celebrating differences, or searching for similarities? I don’t know what to think, and I think that’s the intent.
The term refers to the attempt to persuade someone to do something by advocating the opposite. The Northside gallery employed the idea with fliers plastered around town, pleading, “PLEASE, WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT ATTEND THIS EVENT.” Clever.I almost want to stop you here and say, “Please, don’t read this review.”
Still there? Good. My advice: Go, but empty your brain of preconceived notions about folk art, punk influences and how you’re “supposed” to react to either. This exhibition is no easy Psych 101 class. Spend time with the works of Katherine Michael and David Rizzo and let them speak to you. The gallery puts it this way: “Their works side-by-side are a little like having an angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other. And sometimes you don’t know which is which, who is who, what is what.”
Working at her kitchen table in Florida, Michael, a self-taught painter, randomly chooses three icons with no relation to one another. Gandhi, a Route 66 sign and a blackbird. A calico cat, a Ouija board and Marilyn Monroe. A cow, Abe Lincoln and a sock monkey. Each trio is against a flowery background reminiscent of a quilt. The effect is like an off-kilter cross-stitch sampler. Michael’s work “is both sophisticated and not wanting to be sophisticated,” gallery co-founder Keith Banner observes.
The “psychology” part of the exhibit title tempts the viewer to look for hidden meaning. None is intended. Michael is “all about the ‘happy,’ ” she writes in her bio. In addition to the trios, there are wood cutouts of animals, Queen Elizabeth and jars of fireflies. Michael’s folk style is familiar, and so are the images. The freshness comes from the absurd randomness and connection each viewer makes to something in his or her past. Here’s where you could practice psychology and dream up stories about the figures, as Rizzo has in a collaborative piece. But Michael’s intention when making art “is just to do it,” Banner says.
Banner considers Michael’s and Rizzo’s approaches on the Thunder-Sky blog. “Katherine is humming pop songs with the radio in the car after grocery shopping; David is at a poetry reading, getting ready to go on stage,” he writes.
So what were Banner and gallery co-founder Bill Ross possibly thinking when they saw a connection between Michael’s happy-go-lucky art and Rizzo’s introspective works, with their themes of suicide, sexual identity and broken dreams?
“There’s an innocence and sophistication in both worlds and works,” Banner says. “There’s a stream of consciousness,” whether she is serendipitously choosing joyful images or he is trying to make sense of relationships and his family history.
In their sole collaboration done via mail, Rizzo, of Cincinnati, created a splashy club scene for Michael’s images of Lincoln and the B-52s’ Kate Pierson. (Pierson also received a metallic cyborg arm.) Then, influenced by theories on the 16th president’s sexuality, Rizzo thought up a story. The dialogue wraps around the two figures like smoke in a bar. “Dance?” Pierson asks. “Sorry, not my type,” Lincoln responds.
With its dreamy feel, the piece is a jumping-off point for Rizzo’s solo art. “Hello, my name is David Rizzo. I am a 24-year-old DAAP/Cincinnati State dropout” is all the artist has to say in his bio. This must be a psychological trick, because his art is deeper than his statement lets on. At the same time, his bio sums up a young adult figuring stuff out.
“Crystal Gail,” one of three works examining suicide, is at once haunting and humorous, and therefore a new take on a common subject.An otherwise bony figure with the ta-tas of Dolly Parton and the tresses of Crystal Gayle steps out from a sea of bottles to wade knee-deep in pills. She’s got a needle in one arm and a pipe occupying the other. Pictures of Gayle — the choice of the country star is apparently random, much like one of Michael’s selections — cascade as ghostly reminders of lost beauty.
On the back wall, a group of family photographs centers around Rizzo’s paternal grandmother, who was a mobster’s mistress. The striking blonde stares at the camera wearing a little black dress, with long crimson fingernails and a gold cross hanging from her neck. Rizzo has added a coil of smoke that snakes around her arm, forming a toxic cloud that permeates the photos on either side of her. The gray wraps around his father, a drug user, as he drinks with Rizzo’s grandmother and aunt. Finally the smoke becomes a chain of hearts attached to a collar around his mother’s neck. She was “chained to that toxic energy through love,” Rizzo realizes.
Rizzo’s jobs have included clerking in a liquor store, where he sold lottery tickets to students, professionals and the down-and-out. “Some customers would wait there for two hours (for the drawing), and I’d watch their disappointment.” They’d talk about what they dreamed of buying — homes, castles, private islands. “People wanted seclusion and security,” he says. He hasn’t found a way to give that to them, but he has taken those losing tickets and incorporated them into starry little island scenes, using the Pick 3 and Pick 4 logos as a moon. He, at least, has moved on.
Happy with his timeline, Rizzo looks at the opposite wall, to Michael’s art. He feels a connection to her, though they haven’t met. “We have similar energies” when it comes to art, he says. Perhaps it’s the shared idea of just letting go. Yet for all of his creepy imagery, Rizzo says Michael’s self-portrait with her head on a bird’s body freaks him out. “I can’t look at it too long.”
What would a psychologist say to that? I don’t know what to think.©
Reverse Psychology: Katherine Michael & David Rizzo continues through June 16 at Thunder-Sky Inc., 4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside. 513-823-8914;www.thunder-skyinc.blogspot.com .