Darren Haper’s Almost There looks inward at Rosewood Arts Centre

By Morgan Laurens

Photo: Darren Haper’s Almost There is on display at Rosewood Gallery through May 19

 

“Ooh, look! Isn’t this fun?” coos a woman in a red shirt, pointing to a distressed cartoon character caught in an ominous looking funnel. The cartoon, a yellow cyclops, raises his skinny arms above his head in a desperate bid to escape whatever’s waiting on the other end of the funnel. His one eye frantically searches the crowd for help, but the gallery-goers at Rosewood Arts Centre just point at him and say, “Isn’t this fun?”

Artist Darren Haper’s paintings are fun—on first glance. They’re streaked with bright pop colors, and Cyclops, our funny little hero-in-distress, flops and tumbles across all eight paintings in Haper’s Almost There exhibit like a hand-drawn flipbook character. The exhibit, on display at Rosewood Gallery through May 19, is Haper’s creation, but the real star of the show is Cyclops. And Cyclops is having an existential crisis.

The woman in red is pointing to “Cyclops Cone of Shame,” a painting that looks to Joel and Ethan Cohen’s 1996 crime drama “Fargo” for inspiration. Shot through with the same black humor, the painting is as faithful a recreation of the bloody wood chipper scene you’ll ever see in paint. Except in this case it’s not a bungling henchman played by Steve Buscemi who gets the axe.

In the next painting, “Cyclops Lying in State,” Cyclops flops over on his side, his normally unblinking eye blacked out, slashed through with a large X, the universal cartoon symbol for death. It seems like the wood chipper has done its job. To say that the paintings have continuity, though, would be wrong. In the very next painting, Cyclops is alive and well—doing a swan dive off the edge of the canvas.

This lapse in continuity is part of the reason Haper’s work seems so “fun” at first. The paintings are narrative-based, but each new work is episodic, a total reset. There is no narrative arc, no real death in Cyclops Land. Like Wile E. Coyote before him, Cyclops will always live to fight another day.

Haper is tapping into more than just your favorite Sunday morning cartoon, though. His process of coating the canvas with a thin, grimy wash before tacking on thick slabs of paint, randomly placed, is an homage to Dadaist principles. A precursor to Surrealism, the Dada movement rose in the early 20th century as a reaction to WWI. Its adherents eschewed aesthetically pleasing imagery in favor of socially conscious art—much to the chagrin of the bourgeoisie. It’s probably not what Haper had in mind when he painted “Cyclops Breakdancing,” but maybe it crossed his mind as he painted “Cyclops Authoritarian with a Big Heart.”

Where Dada’s influence really shows through is the element of chance that Haper incorporates into his paintings. Stylistically, his work owes a greater debt to Pop Art from the mid-20th century—giants like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and especially Sigmar Polke. If that last name doesn’t sound familiar to you, it’s because Polke never obsessed over the American flag or slathered paint all over a bedspread. He made dreamy, trippy prints, using a litany of overcooked Pop images as a jumping-off point. And he wasn’t afraid of yellow—just like our friend, Cyclops, whose yellow coloring spills from the outlines of his head, stomach, and feet.

Initially, before seeing Haper’s mid-size paintings in person, I thought his work might be suited to something more exploratory, something less safe than a few perfectly square canvases in a perfectly square gallery. Maybe Cyclops could travel from painting to painting. Maybe his death could one day be permanent. Or maybe he could just go to therapy.

Seeing Haper’s five square paintings together, sandwiched between opposing gallery walls, I realized how wrong I was. Their charm lies in their feigned simplicity, their similarity to your favorite childhood cartoon. The relatively small format is accessible and eerily reminiscent of a short comic or a 30-minute television show—easy to swallow, thoroughly enjoyable, and just short enough to make you want another.

The one misstep here is the pair of large paintings hung on opposing gallery walls. “Cyclops Vagabond” and “Cyclops Breakdancer” were both created this year, where the smaller paintings were all done in 2016—and it shows. Most of the small paintings have a griminess to them that pops through the one-note chromatic colors layered on top. The grit gives them depth and a certain heft that’s missing from the larger paintings.

The change in size also misses the mark. Someone, somewhere, once said that a bad work of art is made good by simply enlarging the work so the sheer size of the thing overwhelms the viewer. That probably has a smidge of truth to it, but only if the work is bad to begin with. Haper’s obvious skill is obfuscated by the size of “Vagabond” and “Breakdancer,” both twice the size of his small paintings.

If he sticks with the smaller, episodic format, Haper has what every artist wants—a never-ending supply of ideas, situations in which to insert Cyclops. Allow me to submit a few suggestions: “Cyclops has a Midlife Crisis,” in which we see an enthusiastic Cyclops joyriding in a shiny red Ferrari; “Cyclops Circles the Drain,” where we see Cyclops confront his own death yet again, this time from a hospital bed; “Cyclops on a Date,” where Cyclops meets a Tinder match for the first time; and finally, “Cyclops Goes to Therapy,” where Cyclops finally gets on the couch. Hey, the little guy has earned it.

 

Almost There runs through May 19 at Rosewood Arts Centre, 2566 Olson Dr. in Kettering. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit DarrenHaper.com or PlayKettering.org. 

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Morgan Laurens
Reach DCP freelance writer Morgan Laurens at MorganLaurens@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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