Keiger exhibit a fun escape from reality

Art Review

“Charles Keiger”

Through Jan. 6, 2013. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. Free. Tew Galleries, 425 Peachtree Hills Avenue #24, Atlanta. 404.869.0511,

Bottom line: Those with a taste for whimsy and wit will find much to delight in this painter’s solo show.

Painter Charles Keiger has carved out a special place in the Atlanta art world, producing a steady stream of his iconoclastically quirky, well-executed paintings for over two decades. He has also had the good fortune to find an established, successful Atlanta gallery, Tew Galleries, that has been exhibiting Keiger’s paintings for 24 years. It’s the kind of support many local artists can only pine for, with a limited number of galleries and only so many exhibition slots.

Keiger’s work continues to mine a characteristically oddball and madcap mash-up of Americana and a surreality that looks as equally indebted to Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo as it is to Southern folk art. His paintings depict worlds both endearingly familiar and altogether strange.

A typical example of the Keiger approach is his oil on canvas painting “Celebration,” featuring a lithe blonde in a beehive hairdo holding a layer cake in her lap. The woman sits atop a supersized beehive, perhaps in reference to her sky-high hairdo. In typical classical portraiture style, she remains prim and oblivious to the eventful world around her, which includes a circus ringmaster wearing a top hat and a megaphone, a tiny dog decked out in a party hat, a hot air balloon passing across the sky, a dancing bear and, in the distance, a gleaming white mansion.

Oh, but there’s more.

The girl, her cake and the show dog occupy a foreground marked by a parted red curtain that seems to suggest a theatrical production. The dancing bear and barker in the background wait in the wings, perhaps for their turn onstage. Keiger often divides the world into a theatrical space in his paintings’ foreground and a separate but related landscape full of equally interesting characters and events unfurling behind it. The collision of so many layers of storytelling is head-swimmingly fun.

The artist’s works revel in such visual non sequiturs and delightful collisions of nature and culture. In “Lilies” a gorgeous, intensely yellow lily levitates above the ocean like an airborne Botticelli Venus or some alien visitor touching down from another world. Below, another lily floats on the waves. Red curtains bookend the scene, as if pulled back to introduce this strange spectacle. In “Still Life” a woman with a spectacular hairdo and wearing a fancy white gown stands on a black and white checkerboard tile floor. A huge platter of fruit, cheese, eggs and other treats levitates before her, a beckoning hostess’s bounty. Behind her a green curtain parts to reveal a lush lake and landscape like the painted backdrop in a Victorian theatrical production.

The man loves a carnival: circus tents, performing monkeys, ringmasters and magicians make frequent appearances in these paintings. And in many ways the vibrant color schemes and folk-art style of flattening the space between the foreground and the background recall those enormous, eye-catching ballyhoo banners once placed outside of circus tents to lure audiences in with promises of mustached strongmen, contortionists and sexy dancing girls. Moving between lowbrow circus and highbrow portraiture, Keiger’s works also evoke the Renaissance painting techniques of Raphael or Titian, where curtains parted on a privileged world of perfectly choreographed scenes from the Bible or mythology, offered up for the viewer’s delectation.

Those with a taste for whimsy—myself included—are likely to go a little weak in the knees over the megadose offered in Keiger’s work. What a delightful break from a world that can often seem fueled by a kerosene of more bad news, to simply revel in the inspired visual diversions of Keiger’s alternative reality, if just for a moment.