Not-So-Starving Artist

Accomplished Birmingham painter John Lytle Wilson gets a high embracing lowbrow art.

by Cindy Riley , Photo by Beau Gustafson

John Lytle Wilson

Searching for nuance in painter John Lytle Wilson’s work is ultimately an exercise in futility.

“I prefer art that’s in your face—colorful, dramatic and unforgettable,” he  admits. “I like art to have an impact and confront the viewer. It’s not about subtleties.”

Not that Wilson doesn’t have stories to tell.  Inspired by his childhood television viewing habits,    the 34-year-old South  Carolina native  considers himself a frustrated animator who delights in using wild  colors and quirky images to intrigue his audience.

“I used to watch cartoons a lot on Saturday mornings and after school,” Wilson says. “The robots and animals  in my paintings are  soaked into my brain because I was sitting in front of the TV from the time I was four  or  five years old.  Over time as an artist, I developed a style that led me closer to cartoon imagery, and now  I have these narratives in my head.”
His recent “Corrected Paintings” show at Rojo,  in the tradition of  notorious British graffiti master Banksy, is  evidence of just that.  Using thrift shop and flea market  paintings—think  cheap motel  canvases—Wilson takes cheesy landscapes and turns them into playful works, where streams and evergreens are juxtaposed with neon monkeys, unicorns and robots.

“For me, the animals are a symbol of the id, and the robots are the super ego,” Wilson explains. “They also represent the organic and the geometric, the natural and mechanical. They are the bookends of the spectrum of human evolution.”

His  bold acrylics, created with synthetic bristle watercolor brushes, allow him to examine consciousness, free will and mortality.

“What is God or religion to a robot? A robot’s relationship with its creator would be quite different than a person’s,” explains the Birmingham-Southern grad and fan of Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. “The idea of separating the creator away from the divine is fascinating to me. At the same time, if early humans were confronted with something like a robot, they would assume it was a god, when in fact the robot is the creation, not the god.  At the same time, these are just pictures of robots blowing stuff up, or of cute animals.”

Never intending to force meaning on the observer, Wilson’s  assorted paintings draw on both religious iconography and modern commercial design.

“I investigate humanity’s tendencies to depict animals and to use them to sell everything from food to god,” he says.  “Early humans drew the beasts they hunted. Mythologies developed featuring holy creatures and anthropomorphized species. Today we have cartoons, mascots and corporate logos. In each case, animal imagery is a powerful indicator of a culture’s priorities. Are they simply a powerful marketing tool, or is there inherent divinity in animals? Are people compelled to represent beasts because we see something human in them, or because we see something animal in ourselves?”

The son of two teachers, Wilson says his dad’s career played a role in shaping his canvases. “My father taught for a year in Shanghai in 1985-86, when I was in third grade,” he says. “Those were early days to be a foreigner in China, when it was still quite isolated. The time I spent there helped influence my art as far as liking monkeys and all.”

Wilson’s paintings were recently featured  at the Fine Art Museum at Western Carolina University in his solo exhibition, “Gods of the Machine.” The show closed Sept. 30.

Denise Drury, Interim Director of the Fine Art Museum, describes Wilson’s work as deliberate and precise.
“John and I first started working together when he was appointed artist-in-residence at 621 Gallery in Tallahassee,” Drury says. “John is like a cultural anthropologist, visually archiving this process of living in this time and being between the organic and the inorganic worlds. What he shows us is not always a hardship or a comfort, but the story of everyday coexistence. His work has received major acclaim throughout the Southeastern U.S. and exhibition status nationally and abroad, including shows in Italy and Canada. His wife Liz’s education and background in English and visual art certainly make her keen to certain oddities and quirks in pop culture which often become the subjects of John’s paintings.”

Known for occasionally  riding  very small bicycles indoors at  parties, Wilson has made an impression on his fellow artists locally.  Good friend  Daisy Winfrey says, “His work ethic is above and beyond, and he can  laugh about things that are serious and turn hilarious images into a contemplative situation. John is also the ‘King of Karaoke’ and  my sometimes partner in hijacking the sound system and microphone at Bottletree to start a late-night dance party.”

And Wilson clearly likes calling Birmingham home. “There’s a good deal of community support for the arts,” he says. “The museum, the   openings and  art fairs all seem very well attended. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough art buying to support all the galleries. I was pretty unhappy with the recent closure of Bare Hands Gallery. Still, the city has so much to offer and so much potential.”

Currently working as an artist and freelance designer, Wilson  serves as exhibit coordinator at ACME Gallery, where he helped curate the “Rebuild Alabama” tornado relief effort in May.  In addition, he was  selected to take part in an international exhibit of robot-themed artwork at Strychnin Gallery in Berlin.

“I’d like to show more of my work outside the region,” Wilson says. “I also hope to get back to my monumental paintings, like the ones I did while working on my MFA at Florida State. I worked in an old warehouse space with large walls, so I once did a 12-part series of eight-foot-tall paintings of animals. They were big, symmetrical with flat areas of color.”

As for his short-term goal, says Wilson, “I would like to eat some macaroni.

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