On an extremely busy February 13th, I found time to head into the local Upper Playground store located in Seattle‘s University district. Not only was it Friday the 13th, but I also had a drunken birthday party to appear at that night and it was my 3 year anniversary with m’lady. The reason that I headed into the apparel/art retailer was actually to figure out my schedule for the palindromic following Friday, Feb. 20th (02/20). Kool Keith was scheduled to perform the same night as UP‘s opening night for an exhibit by artist N8 Vandyke but, after speaking to the staff, it was clear that there would be absolutely no conflict for me to attend both events. “Don’t worry. We’re all heading over to Kool Keith from here. We’re actually helping to sponsor the show.” they told me. I also recieved a proposal from the manager, Jen, asking me to contribute some writing to the Upper Playground blog The Citrus Report.
After leaving, I was pretty amped and was even more focused on making it to see Kool Keith this time around. Even though we’ve had a preview in our suggested events section for two months, I had still completely spaced the date of the show until the last minute and never bothered to try and get passes until that week. I spent the next few days tracking down whoever released the rappers latest album, while waiting to hear back from my connection at the venue about if he was able squeeze me into the overly packed guest list. He couldn’t help me this time and it was my fault but, I did have a few back and forth emails with Threshold Recordings, Kutmasta Kurt‘s label. The first email that I received from them went as follows: “Sorry, kool keith does not encourage show reviews, only show previews“. I was a little confused because that is usually only the case with venues. Reviews don’t help the venues because they are written after the events have already passed but, reviews still work to promote the artists. I responded by pointing out that I had already posted a preview to which they replied with “Sorry keith’s policy is no show reviews“, “…we meant a full preview with interview etc etc“, and that they may be able to get me a pass if I “promise not to write a show review” and if I would, “guarantee a feature article on the new dr doom album“. Of course, I would have been down to squash this article, if they would have worked out an interview and sent me the album but, it was taking days at a time to get a response and, by this time, it was the day before the show. Plus, I had never been offered passes to NOT review a concert before. It was all a little strange yet, somehow fitting for Kool Keith. Fuck it, I already bought a ticket at this point anyway. I sent them an email stating that, if they arranged an alternative option for my article, which included an email interview and an album for review, I wouldn’t write it. Otherwise, I was going ahead with my plans. Out of respect I waited but, it’s been long enough and I haven’t heard back. Next time they should try leaving a sixer of Magic Hat and a sausage grinder out on a table in front of me and ask me now to eat it while they’re out of town. I might wait an hour but, eventually, I’m gonna drank that beer and eat that sammich.
(continue reading for N8 Van Dyke exhibit or click here to jump ahead to the Kool Keith review)
The art reception started at 5pm but O.G. and I pulled up around seven. As I stood out front and finished my cigarette, I looked in through the glass store windows and saw a large crowd mingling around. Behind a large Mear One mural in the corner, a DJ appropriately spun hip-hop and soul, adding to the vibe without overpowering it. This was a real art exhibit with free alcohol and the whole shabang. I’ve been to plenty of exhibits before but it’s really nice to see something like this going down on a street like University Ave in Seattle. For someone like me, the fact that UP opened a location in Seattle at all is a godsend. Events like these are necessary for the community, especially with the fact that many smaller galleries like the Mcleod Residence have been closing down in the area.
The minute I reached the back gallery area where the art was displayed, I noticed N8 Van Dyke immediately. It’s hard not to; he was the only 6 foot 9 white guy with a shaved head in the place. He was was very engaging and personable with the gallery visitors that he towered over. He casually drank microbrews and took the time to interact with anyone who was interested.
Jen ran up to me, looking like the polar opposite of Van Dyke. Finally seeing someone that was shorter than I was, I got to feel like I was tall for the few short minutes that we spoke. With a huge smile on her face, she confirmed that she had an assignment for me and wanted me to write something for the Upper Playground offshoot, The Citrus Report, next month. Her enthusiasm was contagious and, as I looked around, It was clear that everyone was excited about the events for the evening and was in great spirits. I told her that Threshold actually requested that I not review the show and was unsure about how I should feel about that. She replied with, “Are you kidding? If they don’t want you to write about it, this show is gonna be sick!” Hmmm…maybe she was right. She left as quickly as she arrived and and we took time to view the art.
Based on the footage that I’ve seen from the Fifty24 galleries in SF and Portland, the Upper Playground in Seattle has a comparatively smaller viewing area. There may not have been as much room for an as extensive exhibit of Van Dyke‘s work, but the artist definitely made sure to bring pieces that demonstrated his range and which gave a sample of his stylistic tendencies and over all approach to art in general.
Much of the work displayed revolved around Van Dyke‘s more recent focus on skulls and death. Although it is commonplace for the illustrator to incorporate violent subject matter into his art, many of his newer pieces seem to turn a broader spotlight on the subjects of mortality and human frailty, as opposed to the simple potential for destructiveness by the human race.
N8‘s trademark chimp figure easily graced about half of the images presented at the Upper Playground that night. I always viewed these apes as commentaries on the human race as being animals themselves and on their inherent natures as reactive primitive beasts. Often, I think that they simply just stem from Van Dyke‘s own personal struggles and inner frustrations, as well as his own realization that he himself is a mortal creature composed of muscles, tissue, and flesh pulled tightly over his near 7 foot skeletal structure, which holds it all together. This becomes especially apparent through titles of illustrations like “The Beast in Me” (not featured in the exhibit), which centers around a somber chimp sitting amongst bottles of hard alcohol and emitting the drunken apathy of a Bukowski novel. The appearance of the chimps even resemble Van Dyke a bit. This may be a coincidence, however. I’ve been accused of drawing myself before because I often touch my own jaw line or reference my own features for compositional reasons, but I would not be surprised if the comparison between the artist and his characters are intentional. Then there’s other art that, after careful investigation of the brushstrokes, any well studied scholar with a masters in fine art and versed on it’s fundamentals could surmise have intentions rooted in simply looking bad ass.
The walls were mounted with a nice mixture of mediums and showcased Van Dyke‘s unique vision, coupled with evident nods to some of his favorite comic and fantasy art influences. The mixed media “Hamburger Hill” (pictured) is comprised of an anthropamorphic primate brandishing bloody hunting knives and working Mike Tyson-style on his victim’s ear. This and other pieces feature a washed out color scheme, blood, gore, color splatter, strained veins, and chunky muscle tone that are reminiscent of graphic art by influential legends such as Simon Bisley (Lobo, Judge Dredd, etc) and Frank Franzetta (Conan, Molly Hatchet cover art, etc). Van Dyke‘s personal illustrations even feature him taking a shot at illustrating his own versions of Lobo, while the exhibit contains an ink and paper homage called “With Apologies to Frank Frazetta“. Another ink and paper work, “Guardian’s Domain“, is of a winged and horned character that merges a taste of comic art with another of N8‘s influences, H.R. Geiger, and even a bit of graffiti text to help form the wings. In typical Fifty24 gallery fashion, the artist decorated the gallery walls themselves. To create “Dead UP“, Van Dyke put his spin on Upper Playground‘s trademark walrus by spraypainting off, on, and around the canvas; later finishing off the painting with acrylics.
The new wave of artists like Van Dyke, Alex Pardee, and Luke Cheuh, who are often categorized as “low brow“, are part of a much larger concept and realization that I’ve had the older I get and, which I feel should work as inspiration for those who are now in their adolescent and tween years. N8 and I are the same age, in fact we were born in the same month. It’s clear to me that he was just another kid collecting Image Comics, when they first came out, and who was also taken into drawing the amazing new characters that were featured in their pages. I was led to believe that everything that I was interested in from skateboarding, video games, art, comics… whatever, was a dead end and a waste of time. The truth is that the youth really does grow to decide what’s relevant and important in the future and, in turn, they bring what was important to them with them. Van Dyke‘s “day job” is actually creating video games and he has been able to move a lesser accepted form of art, that held importance for so many of us, into a field that was not previously considered “fine art” or given it’s due credit.
The exhibit runs until March 18th and, after that, there will be more to come, for both the gallery and the artist. To see the art in person, is a whole differentexperience and Van Dyke‘s work is more than modestly priced. Limited edition signed and numbered prints for pieces like the ink on antiqued paper “A.D.” (featured on flyer) were selling for only $40 and some original pieces were even as cheap as $250, and that’s framed. Get off your ass an support something. If you are in Seattle go to the Upper Playground and Roq La Rue. Support these establishments now and while we still have them. Don’t be another asshole that wishes you took the opportunity after it’s too late. If you live in a place like NY, SF, or LA and you don’t take advantage of the plethora of exhibits that do come through your area regularly, you deserve to be tazed in the junk. Remember, there are art starved children in the Midwest who are less fortunate and would love to be able to take even a bite of these finely prepared meals of acrylic, spraypaints, clay, and oils that you so casually take for granted.
Read and interview with N8 Van Dyke on The Citrus Report and….
Go to N8’s website with features his art as well as his interview with Juxtapoz where he speaks about kicking the windows out of Taxi-Cabs.
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