It's not easy to separate a person from their roots. As the title indicates, Return of the Native celebrates Brett De Palma as Nashville's prodigal son, back after a long sojourn in New York City with something new to share. But to fully appreciate the sea change that has occurred in De Palma and his work, it's important to recognize the magnitude of the New York art world during the 1980s.
In a decade known for its excess, New York's gallery scene thrived. Between 1981 and 1987, more than a hundred art galleries opened and closed their doors in downtown New York City. In 1981, curator Diego Cortez organized an epochal exhibition titled New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, a showcase of over 1,000 works from over 150 artists. New York/New Wave played a large part in defining an art movement that galvanized the punk energy that had been brewing in Lower Manhattan since CBGB opened its doors there in the mid-1970s. The fact that De Palma exhibited at Cortez's show — alongside Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Byrne — placed him at the center of a watershed movement that swept the visual arts into punk rock, and vice versa.
Thirty years later, De Palma's studio practice retains the punk disjointedness that flowed through that scene like free wine and cheap beer. Punk was aggressive, and had a DIY aesthetic that opened up limitless possibilities to artists. De Palma explains, "My art is intentionally funky in order to represent improvisation and the stretch towards unformulated solutions. It is the embracing of the impure and even failure itself." But there's something else at work here, something new and light. De Palma's paintings have taken a turn for the happy.
When you take the hard-edged rebellion of the punk movement out of the New York '80s and transplant it into Nashville's easygoing Southern air, you get something less frantic and more grounded. The current paintings have little of the bleakness that surrounded De Palma's early work, and he's given them Southern-centric titles like "Ring of Fire," "Kissing Elvis," "Tar Baby" and "Creationism." You can almost feel Nashville oozing out of the canvases like drips of paint. Now he makes paintings like a punk-rock Walt Disney, incorporating elements of the fantastic and the everyday with over-the-top style and cheery depth.
"Parrot Opera" is a cubist-surrealist mélange of color that takes place on a stage, complete with thick red curtain flanked by tiny cherubs and skulls. The windows in the stage set look out onto a fantastic world of floating castles over a sea, a view that is both pastoral and psychedelic. The painting is dramatic, energetic and mysterious, capturing all the grandeur of an operatic aria, but with a cartoonish parrot in the lead role.
De Palma's paintings are more interpretive than introspective, combining symbols and styles to create not just paintings but entire worlds, layered with color and staged for maximum atmospheric effect. The largest and most impressive painting in the series, "Fashion Victims: Haute Couture Coiffure," is an example of this painterly cut-up technique. In it, four women look coyly away while showing off absurdly elaborate hairdos — the blonde has an entire ship on the top of her Louis XIV-style head. In the foreground, a study of female arms is so graceful it becomes grotesque, curving into a web of sinewy lines. The painting's sweeping scale matches the melodrama of its fashion-victim inhabitants, telling a story about the ugliness of feminine beauty with playfulness and joy.
"Blue-Faced Preacher" takes its title from a painted face that is actually a wash of color, smeared onto the canvas in thick globs. It is rare to see this kind of painterly texture in contemporary art, and De Palma seems to apply it with a self-aware defiance that speaks to his punk-rock roots. The background is stripes of dripping paint, the preacher's suit built of smudges of color. De Palma reveals his love of applying paint to canvas, and of the magic of taking pigment from a tube to create something new.
In his artist statement, De Palma explains that his paintings are contradictory because life is often contradictory. "I am allowing the conflicting hard edges and soft forms, sensuality and roughness, humorous and dark to coexist; to stand-in for real life in all its quirkiness." His canvases are filled with images that create an atmosphere of fragmented storytelling that is not quite a narrative, but rather a combination of elements that unfolds like a song. That song is similarly contradictory – punk-rock country-and-Western.