by Christopher Koza
Ghostbirds and Gumbells? These characters and others from the mind of artist David Witt infiltrate Lowertown St. Paul in a series of new paintings currently on exhibition at the cozy Back Alley Gallery. The works are colorful, humorous, illustrative and identified by titles such as “A Conspiracy of Ghostbirds,” “A Beanbug’s Distress” and “March of the Gumbells”—street signs in a universe where Willie Wonka and Dr. Seuss take tea amidst the playfully twisted existence of strange inhabitants.
Casually dressed artsy-types preferring Interpol to Chopin crowded the recent opening reception of Witt’s Rise of the Gumbells show. The atmosphere would have been incomplete without the keg beer and molasses-sweet aroma of little smokies that lured patrons from the building’s main lobby down a flight of stairs to a narrow, twisting hallway leading to the gallery’s entrance.
alongside his latest collection of shrieking victims, slithery jack-in-the-box-faced
snakes and hollow-eyed vultures, a finely dressed Witt discussed the origins
of his creations. Witt is an illustrator and designer whose other projects include
designing band posters. (Some of his work can be seen at the current Graphic
Noise exhibition at MCAD).
The gumbells were born during Witt’s design of a poster for Fantomas,
who requested something “cute and creepy.” Witt responded with a
teddy bear covered in gumbells, and from there the creatures began working their
way into other Witt sketches on their own accord.
The ghostbirds are of a newer generation. Witt refers to them as “curious
creatures that have yet to infiltrate with the gumbells … I don’t
know if they’ll get along,” he says. Indeed, the ghostbirds did
seem to glare greedily at the tasty prospect of gumbell tartar.
Witt happened on these new characters while revising old sketches. And while
he’s in no rush to overpopulate his growing universe, Witt intends to
push the gumbell icon on its own, and plans to develop a gumbell figurine while
continuing to evolve its style.
The first four pieces in this show preview the progression of the gumbells and
exemplify where Witt is headed as a painter. Initially a printmaker, Witt’s
instinct is to “think in layers, make a ground, and put it over the top,”
and he applies this philosophy to painting. Combining collage, pen and ink style
brushwork and dark imagery, Witt leads the gumbells from the confines of their
fantasy universe into a world of stronger diversity and new challenges.
The work is both fun and lighthearted without being overtly substantive. But
these kinds of creatures are the sorts that build a personal mythology that
can be as revealing as any portraiture or memoir. Walt Disney without Mickey
Mouse? Stan Lee without Spider-man? Food for thought … Gumbell tartar
Rise of the Gumbells runs through Feb. 26 at Back Alley Gallery,
262 4th St., St. Paul, 651-269-16742. Gallery hours are Sat. & Sun. noon–6