By framing a picture or putting an object in a gallery, we change its status. It’s deemed more worthy, more valuable than a painting on a loose piece of paper or a sculpture stuck in an artist’s studio. As Vincent van Gogh found out the hard way, not all great artists get their work sold or exhibited. But the reverse is also true: Just because art is shown in a fancy gallery doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.
Michael Krajewski and Justice Littlejohn’s new show is packed with exuberant and imaginative work. The City Gallery deserves praise for exhibiting such avant-garde art. But quality-wise, the two artists have a long way to go.
Rather than taking the time to develop or hone a particular image, they seem impatient to pile their ideas onto canvas — and there are some fine ideas here. Delve through the squalid doodles and the angry daubs and you’ll find strong pieces like “Faces in Vases,” with female heads in place of flowers, and the Miroesque “Light and Black,” with its matchstick figures. But there are a lot of other artworks that seem half-finished or overdone.
The self-taught Krajewski lives in Columbia, S.C. His solo work is the best in the exhibition. He uses a dark, earthy palette, lots of black lines, and disembodied eyes, mouths, and other body parts. Like Littlejohn, he incorporates cubism and fauvism into his art. He uses different types of canvas, including matte board and fabric with variable results.
“Two Wings” is a good example of the simple, thin-lined style of some of Krajewski’s work. It shows a bird with human lips in a field of long-stemmed flowers. In “The Meeting,” a half-skeleton man encounters a half-naked woman in a painting that visualizes their true intentions. “PM Talk” features a robot with a fish crotch and a counterpart in lingerie. Krajewski is never short of wild ideas, but his energy appears to be unchanneled and his draftsmanship is hasty.
Justice Littlejohn is based in Greenville, S.C. His style looks even more rushed and raw than Krajewski’s. He’s an instructor as well as an artist, and his passion for painting comes out in his work. He observes everyday life and turns it into art. His street scenes give a sense of what it’s like to jaywalk through heavy traffic, all blurred motion and gawking passersby. He’s good at choosing unusual angles; “Lookin’ Down” shows a man’s lap and feet from his point of view. Food, drink, and cigarettes are prominent in Littlejohn’s pieces; several of his characters are jonesing for pizza.
These accessible perspectives anchor his images in the real world. But they lack professionalism, and the more ambitious his concepts become, the more muddled the results. When he paints groups of figures, they are a blobby connection of torsos and limbs. His multicolored backgrounds often threaten to overwhelm the main subject — an issue with Krajewski’s work, too.
Littlejohn’s at his best in still-life mode (“Some Personal Space,” “Still Hungry”) and when collaborating with Krajewski in tableaux like “Swine & Dine” (featuring pigs at a Thanksgiving dinner) and “Never Forgotten,” a depiction of a speeding fire truck on a long, narrow canvas, with red lights streaking by.
Littlejohn and Krajewski call their joint work “collabin’,” creating a chaotic mix of high concepts and raw brushwork. They’re not ready for prime time yet, but they’re prolific, enthusiastic, and never short of subjects they want to paint. All they lack is artistic maturity. On Dec. 10, the artists will be giving a free talk, demonstration, and workshop at the City Gallery. They will be encouraging attendees to collaborate on some impromptu projects. We get the feeling that making this kind of art is a lot more fun than looking at it.