Neuroscientists enjoy extolling the virtues of their own giant brains. One example: "The human brain is the most amazing computer ever created!" Maybe that's true, if you discount its incompetence at mathematical calculations, its junkie dependence on sleep (with attendant withdrawal symptoms) and its susceptibility to amyloid plaque. Those would be unacceptable flaws in a desktop computer, but we put up with them in ourselves. Because our brains are really good at various forms of fuzzy logic, such as pattern recognition. It's how we differentiate objects in our fields of vision, identify faces, pull a signal out of the noise.
Kansas City artist David Gant's paintings make a shit-ton of visual noise. Using the action techniques of abstract expressionism to create bold realism, he also broadcasts a strong, clarifying signal. The result is a true partnership with the viewer, who brings to Gant's work the brain's ability to instantly reconstruct recognizable faces from Gant's slurry of visible brush strokes, planes of color, gloppy acrylic gestures, and the underpainting abstractions that inform the topmost layers of his portraits.
"Image is kind of secondary because I've been drawing faces since I could hold a crayon," says Gant, a bearded Lebowski figure, who has met me at the Leedy-Voulkos gallery to talk about his enormous exhibition there, Portraits of the Crossroads. "The challenge is in the material and the paint."
The exhibit consists of 150 portraits of familiar downtowners. One of the first that I recognize is that of gentle-faced Liz, whom Gant shapes with a catalog of curvilinear brush strokes. I have ordered many a Truck Stop scramble from her at Town Topic over the years.
"She was a really good subject and a great sport," Gant says. "A few people were freaked out by my studio. I had one guy get really uncomfortable and just take off. It's a functioning studio, and when you're in the frenzy of making five paintings a day, plus your living mess is colliding with your working mess, it can be overwhelming. But Liz was great. She came to the opening and had a great time. She got to meet the mayor."
Mayor Mark Funkhouser's portrait — a tall, narrow canvas — shares the large north gallery wall with a dozen other pieces, including an alarming image of artist Jimmy Trotter and a sensitive painting of Belger gallery assistant Mo Dickens with his wife, Cary Esser, ceramics chair at the Kansas City Art Institute.
The wall is anchored by the exhibit's largest painting: a huge portrait of a dog, identified in the gallery guide as "Morty Palmer." The show's second-largest picture depicts Crossroads sculptor and restaurateur Stretch, who took no chances ensuring his prominence. "When I went to paint him, I brought a smaller canvas, but Stretch had this big canvas all ready to go," Gant says, "I really wanted to dispel the notion of status in the exhibit. So the dog is the biggest portrait, and the paintings are all priced strictly on canvas size."
The cumulative effect of the show is that of being surrounded by a crowd of familiar people, some friends, some nodding acquaintances. "At the opening, I really thought about that," Gant says. "There was a crowd of people in the gallery and a crowd of people hanging on the wall."
I recognize people whom I see around town but don't really know: the elaborately mustachioed-and-mutton-chopped Tuck, wearing a motorcycle T-shirt; a bespectacled woman whom I see on 18th Street; an old, skinny dude who drinks white wine at bars. Walking among Gant's paintings is a lot like walking around the Crossroads on a busy Friday night.
Encountering the people I know on Gant's canvases drives home his eye for the nuances of personality and the unexpected language he uses to convey them. There's no way his vivid color choices should add up to human skin tones, let alone express identifiable emotions, yet the alchemy of his style transforms gesture into character. There's intelligence in Brick owner Sheri Parr's expression, unpredictable humor in Late Show Gallery owner Tom Deatherage's eyes. "Don't be fooled," Gant says. "Tom's drinking a vodka-tonic out of that wineglass."
It's a Hollywood trope to indicate a character's creativity with paint-flinging montages. But abstract expressionism actually happens in the moment when the painter engages with the canvas, the finished work merely the residue left behind by the artist's actions. Ask Gant which painting is his favorite and, after a socially acceptable amount of hedging, he indicates a self-portrait that's different in technique from the other paintings here. In it, he has rendered his own face in primarily vertical strokes, with a color palette that's strikingly different from that of the surrounding paintings.
"I got sort of tired of painting the portraits, and I needed to break up the monotony," he explains. "I taped a 2-inch brush to an 8-foot cardboard tube and painted in vertical strokes. Then I'd shorten the length of the tube and the size of the brush as I worked in the details." If the forms and the faces are Gant's destination, he has made a dramatic arrival by moving in from an unexpected direction.