Of Gods and Heroes

"Art is a vehicle for self-expression", any artist will tell you that.  Why is it then that our contemporary art world has turned into a self-conscious, introspective exercise on the use and virtue of paint; where every piece is called "Untitled", and the only ideas explored are the color wheel, the texture, the density, and the aquosity of paint?  Where is the meaning?  Where is the message?  Where is the touted "self-expression"?  I grow weary of such Art.  Which is why I was delighted when I recently attended a reception benefiting the The Houston Area Women's Center (an organization that fights domestic violence) at Archway Gallery in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, and met gallery director and artist John Slaby.

It was immediately clear to me that Mr. Slaby was no ordinary contemporary Artist, starting with the refreshing fact that he is full of ideas - philosophical, religious, social ideas and he is not afraid to paint them.  Add to this his (rare) scholarship in Art History and his superb technique, and you are standing in front of someone truly unique.

"Heroic".  Oil on Canvas. 24 in x 24 in. 2009
The first painting that caught my eye was one similar to the one above and also titled "Heroic" (and unfortunately I could not find an image of it, so you will just have to visit Archway Gallery to see it in person).  It depicted a marble statute of Athena, goddess of Just War "di sotto in su" (seen from below).  The painting, like the one above, was splattered in blood (alizarin crimson paint, really) and it made me think of how appropriate this was:  Is there ever a "Just War"?  That's when I decided to go weave through the party to search for the person who had created the painting.  Mr. Slaby further explained to me that he wanted to express how the reality of all these monuments ("Heroic" above depicts Napoleon from the Arc de Triomph in Paris, crowned by Nike, goddess of Victory) that glorify War and Victory is that they are also glorifying all the blood shed in the process.

"Menace"  Oil on Paper.  9 in x 12 in.  2011
"Menace" is a small painting with a big message.  Mr. Slaby asked me to give him my interpretation on this work and I said that this was an example of how one person can yield so much power and cause so much destruction, create so much fear.  He used the verb "to amplify".  This spoke to me on a personal level, having grown up in Nicaragua where one charismatic leader after another has turned into a tyrant.  But he also said something else: he pointed out the obvious fact that the shadow was cast by a toy, a child's toy; implying the horror the child could one day become.  "Menace" is hung appropriately next the "Heroic" painting of Athena.

"After Christmas"  Oil on Paper.  9 in x 12 in.  2011
The first thing I noticed about "After Christmas" was the virtuoso depiction of candle light and the translucent glimmer of the melting wax; and I very boldly told Mr. Slaby (and very boldly state here) that it reminded of a Georges de La Tour (there I said it!) to which Mr. Slaby responded, that he was indeed inspired by de La Tour and all those penitent Mary Magdalenes; which I suppose is fitting since Christmas is after all a religious holiday.  Mr. Slaby has depicted here a sad, tacky, and melting Santa Claus candle, a reflection of our consumerist culture; empty and depressed until the next great sale.

Since meeting Mr. Slaby I wanted to see more of his pieces, so I went to his website: johnslaby.com and was not disappointed.

"Push"  Oil on Linen.  48 in x 60 in.  2001
Mr. Slaby's work is not only beautiful but meaningful and thought-provoking.  I imagine Mr. Slaby pushing the boundaries of paint as the man above does in "Push", but more importantly, I imagine Mr. Slaby pushing himself every day towards excellence.

John Slaby's work can be seen
online at: johnslaby.com
In person at: Archway Gallery

Many thanks to John Slaby for letting me write about him. All images images and work are the copyright of John Slaby and have been used with his permission



Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Nadia:
What an extraordinary, fascinating and most interesting artist whose work does, as you suggest, have much to say and which leads the spectator to question all manner of values and previously held assumptions and beliefs. Most thought provoking whilst, unlike much contemporary art, John Slaby's work remains profoundly accessible.

Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to write and compile this post.

Guillermo J. Alfaro said...

I wish I still lived in Houston to see this in person. "Menace" indeed seems like an incredibly powerful piece, as do the others you posted. It truly shows that one need not include a lengthy written explanation to understand and appreciate these works.

pranogajec said...

Very compelling work. We need to learn about more of these kinds of artists. I see an article idea here for American Arts Quarterly!

Anonymous said...

Abstract Expressionism is one of my favorite periods of art. Even though I create abstract paintings myself, I too grow weary of "Untitled" abstract paintings made seemingly for the sake of having "couch art". (I know, this makes me sound like such an art snob...).

Anyways, the artwork you showcase in this post is BEAUTIFUL. Thanks for sharing :).

Dear Polia said...

Go ahead and be an "art snob", you've earned that right; and you understand the sentiment better than most people being an artist yourself.

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