Mike Stilkey’s Delightfully Odd Book-Painting Career Gets a Great Showing at Great Park Gallery

I hate people that write in books.

LA artist Mike Stilkey is the kind of guy who writes in books.

I don’t hate Mike Stilkey.

In fact, I kind of love him.

Let me clarify: He doesn’t actually write/paint in books. He writes/paints on them. Sometimes single volumes, with the front or back covers whimsically decorated. Other times, wall-sized canvases of reclaimed hardcover books—best-selling writers such as Randy Shilts, Danielle Steel, James Michener, even Shakespeare, amid titles no one would recognize—most of which look as if they were purchased en masse from Goodwill or weeded off the shelves of public libraries. Sans dust jackets (mostly), lying flat in stacks, the spine facing out, the books are beat up, scuffed, the corners banged, some of the textblocks stamped with the name of a library or slashed with a thick black remainder mark. There are romances, populist fiction, male adventure and self-help ephemera that people have stopped reading, previously destined for the pulping machine, now rescued and given new life as works of art.

In Orange County Great Park Gallery’s mid-career retrospective, “Anthology: Mike Stilkey,” the work is a delightfully odd combination of inspirations: anthropomorphized animals playing guitars or nattily dressed to resemble furry Oscar Wildes (Beyond Belief, 2015); the morbid black humor of Edward Gorey; sly backhands at family dysfunction; the flat, everyone-is-pale-and-looks-as-if-they-have-syphilis paintings of Weimar Germany. In the end, it’s a joyful thing that had me smiling the moment I walked into the first gallery, and then laughing out loud when I stepped into the second.

If Veronica Lake had dark hair, she’d be a dead ringer for the first book painting: Black hair curling around her pale white face and red lips, scarf flowing onto the floor, The Lady of Arlington is a 9-foot-tall-by-7-foot-wide film-noir portrait that would look at home as the cover of a James Ellroy novel. It’s an impressive opening chapter, accompanied by three framed portraits: Today Is Good for Me‘s broad blasts of color reminded me of early Matisse; sitting in a chair, the urbane dandy looks impassive, even tentative, while the brim of his expensive hat and the back of his chair cast satanic shadows on the wall behind him. A cadaverous man twinkles the ivories with fingers like long spiders in Playing the Horse Off the Piano, as tiny plump horses dance and frolic on the lid, one floating in the air on its back, about to plummet toward the floor. Equally delightful: Man Playing Horn for Kitty, Kitty Not Like It, a work that perfectly resembles its perfect title.

Curators Megan Clarke and Kevin Staniec, tongue firmly placed in cheek, bridge the two galleries with an AFL-CIO documentary on bookbinders and the 12-foot-wide-by-3-foot-high book painting Intellectuals and Society, a vision of ivory-tower types as equestrian riders jumping their fat, philosophical “horses” over fences.

The dividing wall between them is covered with small stacks of a half-dozen books, each on separate shelves: one with a half-man, half-penguin creature walking Lilliputian green valleys (Barlow Comes to Judgement, 2015); another of a woman in pseudo-Victorian clothes, walking minute blue horses on strings, titled after one of the books it’s painted on; you can almost hear the WHOOSH CLUNK of the flying seat sailing through the air and connecting with a pensioner’s skull in the hilarious Old Man Getting Chair to the Head.

References to animals are recurring themes: A man flips tiny horses into the air like surreal lucky pennies; a man ponders the airborne arc of flight taken by a handful of blue cats; there is an equine guitar player, mane slicked into spit curls. In Dynamic Psychology, a man clutches an empty bottle of alcohol, while the tiny-headed woman he loves (her voluminous pink dress resembles frothy cake icing made from cotton candy) gazes idly at a dog wearing a party hat.

The elongated, often violent, figures of Gorey come to mind when looking at Stilkey’s series of tiny books, with titles including The Treasure of Friendship, featuring ironic illustrations such as a man throwing a bottle at the head of another. In Framework for Uncertainty, a piano lid crushes a man’s head, red oozing from the corner while a friend watches, hand in pocket. An obese, fluffy lion wrecks vengeance in The Last Whip, bitch-slapping the man about to strike him, their movement suggested by the whirlwinds of colored pencil swirling about them.

My fallback to work appealing to kids and adults is to suggest that the artist make a children’s book from his art. Let me be bold and say . . . screw the kids this time. Stilkey is ours. It seems only appropriate, considering Stilkey’s oeuvre, that an adult coloring book is what’s required. I have my box of Crayolas, and I’m eagerly awaiting the opportunity to color Clown Getting Punched By Polar Bear.

“Anthology: Mike Stilkey” at Orange County Great Park Gallery, Sand Canyon and Marine Way, Irvine, (866) 829-3829; www.ocgp.org. Open Thurs.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through April 10. Free.

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