“Lemon” by Atlanta artist Kyle Brooks.
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Review: Wacky fun, surreal cast of characters populate Kyle Brooks’ art

Artist Kyle Brooks’ paintings in “A Bowl Full of Happiness” at Buckhead’s Spalding Nix Fine Art suggest an off-the-hook child’s birthday party featuring layer cake loaded with icing and multicolored sprinkles, rainbow confetti raining from the sky and even the suggestive sound of kazoos bleating out a melody of chaos.

Known as “Black Cat Tips,” Brooks’ purposefully naive, exuberant, delirious paintings are a rush of blood sugar-spiking sweetness and the kind of full-throttle merry-making that often ends in exhausted tears or a power nap. His paintings in assaultive shades of pink, yellow, green and blue are like an explosion at the Skittles factory. Inhabiting these festive worlds is an anarchical cast of creatures, animal — birds, alligators, cats and beavers make an appearance — alongside human figures and indeterminate ones, all boasting giddy smiles and extra-long lashes whose only mission appears to be to have a good time.

“How” in acrylic on canvas by Atlanta artist Kyle Brooks.
Photo: For the AJC

In “Lord Have Mercy,” a strange creature with a long alligator face and a pink tongue like ticker tape cavorts and camps, and in “Tree Spirits,” the hills are — quite literally — alive and the evergreens boast merrily blinking eyes and wide smiles.

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Brooks’ paintings in acrylic on canvas offer a brand of fun verging on the manic that nods to the downtown cool and hipster wackiness of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf or “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” artist Ric Heitzman, and grown-up artists who channel a childish sense of unhinged good times.

“Lemon” by Atlanta artist Kyle Brooks.
Photo: For the AJC

“Lemon” is a typically confectionery work dolloped with splashes of sunshine yellow featuring a common Brooks motif: totem pole towers of manically smiling faces piled one on top of another like a vertical clown car. The paintings’ titles often seem to derive from their predominant color, so “Baby Blue” is, naturally, awash in the intense blue of CinemaScope swimming pools.

“Baby Blue” in acrylic on canvas by Kyle Brooks.
Photo: For the AJC

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If traditional folk art often offers instructive morality tales, chiding commands to do better and other religious ranting, Brooks’ kinder, gentler messages are more like a child’s flash card featuring a captivating image and a rudimentary concept. “Busy,” for instance, features a grinning black beaver whose innards are filled with a thicket of colorful trees, as if testifying to his gnawing handiwork. The operative concept is, I suppose, busyness. That busyness extends from the frantic circumstance of the painting itself, filled with its many vibrating-with-color creatures, to the work of our eyeballs, deliriously scanning the painting surface, taking in all of the phantasmagorical action.

Atlanta neo-folk artist Kyle Brooks, known as “Black Cat Tips,” is the subject of the solo show “A Bowl Full of Happiness,” featuring “The Talking Mountain Woods,” at Spalding Nix Fine Art.
Photo: For the AJC

A particularly delightful work for its mix of order and chaos is “Son of Man,” featuring a calm, beatific infant figure at the painting’s center, surrounded by a rainbow placenta. That grinning baby is flanked by two figures, parents perhaps, expectantly awaiting their bundle of joy. That sort of representational satisfaction present in so much figurative painting is rare in Brooks’ work. More often, viewers have to settle for abstract notions of delight and distraction. The paintings are the visual art equivalent of a trip to the circus or a spin on the merry-go-round — you simply surrender to the fun.

IN RELATED NEWS:

Folk Art Park, GDOT's first public art project and created in 1996 as part of the city's Olympics projects, reopened today after renovations. Art works representing 23 contemporary folk artists from five southeastern states are on display.

Brooks has described himself as a “street folk artist,” says his gallerist Spalding Nix, and his work is very much a clash of quirky hipster visuals and the disconcerting cheeriness and unified lexicon of Southern folk artists. Some of the happiness-on-overdrive can feel a bit like a put-on; a willful desire to beat Southern folk artists at their own demonically cheerful, self-taught game. But ultimately, who cares when art offers such escapist charm in an often charmless world?

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