1.8 / Review

John Bankston, New Works

By Renny Pritikin February 10, 2010

John Bankston burst onto the Bay Area art scene in 1999 when he was included in the second iteration of "Bay Area Now" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (full disclosure: I was one of the curators). At that time his work sparkled with insouciance, casually displaying the gay fantasias of an African American man as though it were the most matter-of-fact, common occurrence in the world. The effect was exhilarating, liberating, and great fun.

Bankston’s style was childlike—the format was coloring-book simple, with heavy black lines defining figures whose outfits and skin were filled in. The form’s innocent tone belied its deliberately contradictory content. Bankston’s paintings tell the story of a lone man who is transported to a mysterious land where his encounters with a variety of mythic characters carry strong suggestions of eroticized power relationships. Of course, the conflation of domination between lovers with master-slave historical references provided the work with extra sizzle.

Jumping ahead twenty years, Bankston’s fifth show at Rena Bransten Gallery continues the sexual meanderings of the unnamed recurring character, by now a much older-looking man. In 2010, however, with so many painters scrounging imagery from found media sources, it’s difficult to not see our hero, with his pencil-thin moustache, as a Bankston avatar in some perverse Second Life variant. What’s changed, besides our ever-more-attenuated innocence and utterly mediated consciousnesses, is that the artist now deliberately incises African references into what had always seemed a kind of Caribbean flora and fauna in the paintings. According to the gallery, Bankston collects African art. His interest has seeped into his work, though not always smoothly. Masks and other sculptural forms are placed around the picture planes and even adorn some characters; however, their presence seems forced. Of the two dozen works on view, the fourteen small

Another World, 2009; ceramic and acrylic, 24.5 x 9.5 x 7 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco.

Donkey Boy and Dory, 2009; oil on linen, 54 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco.

paintings, most of which depict these artifacts, are often the least satisfying parts of the show. Their scale crowds the action; it’s clear the artist has grown too familiar with this territory.

On the other hand, the larger paintings and the ceramic sculptures are a gas. The sculptures stand at about two and a half feet tall. They are white, with painted surfaces—a cross between the late Viola Frey’s figures and German artist Stephan Balkenhol’s wooden pieces. Frey (in whose studio Bankston has recently worked as an artist) was known for her large-scale figures that employed the outline-heavy technique Bankston uses in his paintings. And Balkenhol, a Bankston contemporary, sculpts his characters with the same mild affect, exquisitely colored clothing, and diffidence that Bankston has found in his first foray into three-dimensional work.

Bankston offers six pieces: three versions are miniature stand-ins for the artist. One is a straight-ahead portrait of the coloring-book hero. Another is nearly identical except the fellow has a sad little lavender bunny sitting on his shoulder (whispering dirty fey thoughts in his ear?). Another wears a feathered cape, while the fourth, a rough-trade pirate, prefers an eye-patch. In the fifth, several recurring Bankston fantasy characters peer out of a tree trunk’s suggestive knotholes. The exhibition’s tour de force is a pantomime horse with two pairs of Bankstonesque feet sticking out from underneath. The pantomime horse, an unutterably silly staple of vaudeville shtick, conceals an anonymous pair of clowns, who labor away to keep the illusion going, one bent over and the other upright, tops and bottoms hidden in plain sight.

The hardest thing for an established artist to do is to reinvent himself, to build a ship at sea. Bankston is pushing at the edges of his practice by injecting it with a more explicitly African iconography, and by trying his hand at ceramics. While the former is still awkward, the latter shows great promise. While some contemporary painters are venerated for the most nuanced if not opaque references to history, Bankston is openly and publicly mythologizing his racial and sexual identity to hilarious and often moving effect.


“John Bankston, New Works” is on view at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco through February 27, 2010.

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