Before & After 

Elizabeth Alley's memories; the "Kudzoo" artists' view of the future.

For some, God is in the details. For Elizabeth Alley, as seen in her latest exhibit, "Playground Paintings" at Perry Nicole Fine Art, the details are in the details. Painted from close-ups of old family photos, these expert displays of brushwork, contrast, and composition suggest poignant narratives and overarching designs of modern life.

In Easter, a noonday sun creates black shadows, and shimmering white gloves are pressed against the high-key colors of Easter Sunday finery. But the real focus of this high-contrast painting is the relaxed face of a young boy who lightly touches the tips of his dad's fingers. In the only full face depicted in Alley's current work, we see one of those moments when at age 6 or 8 or 10, we become aware of self, aware that we are an independent thing beyond family, church, and all the other groups that define us.

In Balcony, above the second floor of a nondescript orange-stucco motel, Alley ladles on gray waves of smog and humidity to create an urban summer sky. The artist's signature crisp edges -- every brush stroke is evident -- arc for the motel's lights. The energy contained within these large globes feels compressed and charged, a metaphor, perhaps, for the stories played out in the rental rooms they illuminate.

The gold buttons of a mother's finely tailored suit, her gold wedding band, and the gold barrette in her daughter's hair tell us the family in Shopping has purchasing power. In the center of the work are a fine leather purse and the right side of a little girl's face. Her expression is that stricken stare a child wears while enduring long bouts of shopping. That girl was the artist at age 4, who is now putting that intense focus into her art.

Through April 29th

Fast-forward to "Kudzoo," the current show at Studio 1688, in which three Memphis artists explore 21st-century urban life and its possible futures. Adam Smith is a graphic designer, cartoonist, fine-art painter, and an internationally recognized graffiti artist. His bemused look at himself and the world include Struggle, a self-portrait of the artist as computer body parts, a fractured skull, and circuitries that wrap around his body. To further satirize this rather twisted state of affairs, Smith sculpts his right foot as a tangle of rope and metal and dangles it off the bottom of the composition.

Graphic designer Michael Carpenter creates posters that tell complex urban stories, sometimes cautionary ones. In the bottom left corners of two large posters created for the documentary film You're Gonna Miss Me, Carpenter tells the story of Rocky Erickson, a 1950s rock-and-roll legend, who secluded himself for decades in his mother's Austin, Texas, home. In the first poster, a young Erickson's full expressive mouth appears to be forming new song lyrics. He looks straight out at the world, and the expanse of white poster surrounding him feels like the unlimited space in which he creates. An older Erickson lowers his head and hunkers down in the corner of the second poster as if to avoid the world's bright lights.

Jon Lee's Fu Manchu-79 has the appearance of an ancient Sung dynasty landscape created with modern materials -- acrylics, encaustic, stencils, latex, aerosol sprays, and polycrylics. A fierce-looking winged energy that reads part-dragon, part-nightmare swoops down into the picture plane. Upside-down words spew from a tangle of dark umbers. To the side of this morass of thoughts and circumstances is a primordial body dripping off-white secretions down to the bottom of the canvas.

Lee drops latex paints and sprays aerosols onto acrylic washes that overlie expressive graphite and ink lines. He repeats this process several times to simulate passages though an atmosphere whose layers appear to go on forever. Lee describes art as a "creative state where he can breathe, escape from a too hectic life, and sort things out." In Fu Manchu-79, Lee has created a beautiful painting and a refuge from which he can see himself and the world a little more clearly. •

Through April 30th

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