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September 15 - October 15, 2007 at Black Maria Gallery, Northeast Los Angeles

by Diane Calder

Tom Neely’s works are a fusion of cartoon and fine art styles. Trained as a painter, but one who gravitated toward comics, Neely uses narrative to tell stories within as well as across his imagery. For his Los Angeles solo debut, Neely presents three new series of paintings together with a sculptural work. Entitled “Self Indulgent Werewolf,” the exhibition traces an unnamed everyman’s evolution from regular guy to werewolf. The same character is also the protagonist of Neely’s recently released graphic novel “The Blot.”

“The Blot,” (2007, 192 pages), according to Tom Spurgeon writing for “The Comics Reporter,” is “a meditation on intimacy, creativity and the loss of control over one's environment.” The graphic novel explores the physical and metaphorical properties of spilled ink, as the main character comes to terms with the blot of ink that encroaches on his body and his world. Wearing a long hat to cover as well as to contain the ink, the book’s hero eventually learns how the affliction can be used for creation as well as destruction.

Neely physically brings this character to life in the exhibition, creating a life-sized sculpture entitled “Secret Identity.” This nude figure wears nothing but a bowler hat that covers his entire head, leaving a single eye hole. When looking into the hole one expects to see an “eye” but there is nothing there. Neely has commented that René Magritte’s Surrealism was an influence and an inspiration, and the empty bowler used here indicates his intent to confound expectations.

The idea of being other than who you are is a well known comic book convention—the weakling is given super powers and ‘beyond human’ abilities. Neely, rather than create larger than life-sized heroes, explores the plight of the everyman as a stand-in for the artist, who grapples with his creative identity, along with personal issues such as love, loss, and paranoia. The usually meek individual is transformed into a powerful beast, the werewolf who struggles to control and reconcile his animal instincts.

In the pieces that comprise Neely’s “Wolf Series” a naked male body with a wolf’s head wrestles with an army of red arms. While the werewolf has human characteristics, the red arms have cartoon-like hands and non-human proportions. Together the arms pull and taunt the werewolf, who does not appear to fight back. The tensions between color, style, and personalities of the characters are used metaphorically, to represent the ambivalence of the lone wolf to connect with others. For example in “Wolf #7” the hunched body of the werewolf cowers and backs away from the outreaching gloved hands and flopping over-sized shoes that reach out from the right side of the paper. This lone wolf hardly revels in his undifferentiated mass audience. As seen here, perhaps he will run, or he may dive in.

"Werewolf #5," 2007,
watercolor and ink.

"Self Indulgent #2”, 2007,
watercolor and ink.

"Self Indulgent #8”, 2007,
watercolor and ink.

"Fugue #6”, 2007,
watercolor and ink.

"Werewolf #7," 2007,
watercolor and ink.

In the “Fugue Series” the werewolf engages with different naked women. Neely captures the obviously tormented werewolf as he gazes and fondles but does not harm the women. While these pieces are sexualized, they seem to portray more pain than pleasure. There are overly familiar tensions as the werewolf grapples with the two sides of himself--the monster and the man.

The “Self Indulgent Series” is a sequence of thirteen images in which the central figure, again a naked man, is drawn in a cartoon-like manner with rounded eyes, large hands and feet, and extremely thin arms, legs and torso. His expression changes from confusion to horror to delight as he engages with his mirror image. As the sequence evolves, one man swallows the other. The figure slowly goes in the mouth, then out the anus, eventually ending up where they began. The character literally and also figuratively indulges in himself.

There is irony as well as humor in Neely’s work. He is able to fuse disparate styles. Being able to tell stories as well as illustrate them is a gift, and Neely excels as a draftsman. Working with various modes of presentation--drawing, painting, sculpture as well as the book format--Neely may represent the next step in the fusion of high art with the comic book.