Saturday night, three of the best young painters in Fort Worth presented their work at Gallery 414 in an exhibit titled "lol, brb A Survey of American Painters Age 29-32 in ZIP Code 76107: Michelle Brandley, James Lassen, Devon Nowlin." There surely are other painters within that age range in this particular ZIP code, but they haven't made as much noise as these three in such a short amount of time.
Their collective exhibition credits over the past two years number more than two dozen.
"I think they are incredible artists," says John Hartley, director of Gallery 414, who will be adding another line to their résumés. "They have great ideas, and their work ethic is terrific."
What has brought them notice and exhibition inclusion are their skill and depictions of contemporary themes through very individual visions. What they have in common is a profound sense of the now (lol and brb in the title, for example, are text shorthand for "laughing out loud" and "be right back") as well as time spent in the Texas Christian University art department. Lassen earned a BFA there in 2004, Nowlin completed her MFA in 2011 and Brandley will complete her MFA at TCU in May.
Michelle Brandley, 29
Love of food and self-loathing drive Brandley to paint on canvas what savages her self-confidence. Before she began her stint at TCU, she painted her love-hate relationship with food. Now, surrounded by 19-year-old blond clones on the TCU campus who, she says, "all look the same and all dress alike in TCU sweat shirts, UGG boots and Nike shorts," her paintings are about body image. She paints physical comparisons of the ideal coed with elephants and scenes from the 1958 movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
"I'm dealing with perfection and acceptability. Things that are beautiful and monstrous," she says.
The humongous housewife is her way of representing her sense of taking up too much space. "I find myself afraid that I will knock into things, spill the wine or the food and create an embarrassing situation."
The elephants in Trunks came from series of workouts in the TCU gym where much of the class was spent balancing on a large ball.
"I felt like I was in a circus," she says and shudders at the memory of the walls of glass that allowed passers-by to witness her star turn in the center ring.
Brandley hasn't always felt overly large. There was a thin time, and that makes her more sensitive to the difference. Her brutal self-awareness allows her to take a profile photograph of herself, bending over from the waist and letting the less than perfect rolls of her abdomen hang down in the most unattractive pose possible, and then use the resultant silhouette as the outline for a label from a bottle of Hershey's chocolate syrup. Anyone who has ever dieted can relate to this one even though he or she might not have the nerve to admit it.
Brandley is too hard on herself, but that honesty of reflection creates powerful images.
James Lassen, 30
Lassen is watching the public's reaction. His day job as a guard at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth allows him a constant stream of people to watch, and what he has noticed is they aren't seeing anything, they are on their phones.
"James and I have the same aversion to this," says 414 gallery director Hartley. "It's as if these people don't have a life beyond their phones."
"I think they prefer this to life," says Lassen. "They paid admission to the museum, but all they pay attention to is nonessentials."
Cellphone behavior fascinates him. For years he has been painting people in public on their phones -- and their concentration on the conversation to the exclusion of all else. Lately he has ratcheted up his observations to include phone conversations and text messages in his paintings.
His painting Textual Healing: Sean Scully with a portrait of a pretentiously pensive Scully with the accompanying text message of marks ////s, ++++s, and ----s is a visual riff on Scully's art practice of hard-edged geometric paintings.
"James may be quiet, but when he says something it's dead on," Hartley says.
"It's pretty snarky, but I'm just giving people what they want, which is more phone," Lassen says. "It is visual venting. I see people looking at paintings through their phones before they know what they are seeing."
His recent work of large canvases with multiple heads and specific text messages is more about the message medium than portraiture. The people could be anyone, as could the messages. He has noticed that messages often saved from friends' texts are fairly unspecific but universally compelling. When presented, the viewer can't help but read every word.
We have become more enchanted by the text than by the portrait.
Devon Nowlin, 32
Nowlin has paintings, 3-D paintings and video works in the exhibit. All of them are animated; some move, while others only suggest movement.
Her DVD video Double Sister is a delightful moment of herself and her younger sister looking as much like twins as two sisters who are 18 months apart possibly can. They try to keep straight faces but break down laughing. That's it. No oblique hidden messages, just a sister moment, accentuated by Nowlin's manipulation of the images to accentuate the similarities.
Her paintings with ghostly images of people who might have recently left the frame are open to interpretation.
What makes these scenes a little askew is they are painted with what she calls a "female gaze."
"So much of art has been about the voyeuristic representation of females through a male gaze," she says. "I wanted to explore the possibilities of the female gaze."
In The Grass Is Always Greener, a woman in a bright green dress lifts up her skirt in an unconscious gesture. She could be in the process of smoothing it down over her knees or hiking it up to show more leg. Her show-and-tell moment would suggest exhibitionist instincts but maybe that is all in the interpretation, which is what Nowlin is striving for.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113