Wet kisses, smothering hugs, bottomless neediness, and all the gooey, sweaty, fervid love that defines the relationship between children and parents are at the center of Tori Tinsley’s solo show “Down in the Valley” at Westside’s Hathaway Contemporary Gallery.
The Atlanta artist’s works have often walked a fine line between humor and misery. Her purposefully crude drawing style suggests something from a children’s book or even a child’s drawing; kind of cute, slightly monstrous. Tinsley is aware of how realism doesn’t necessarily convey the deepest emotions. Instead she channels an amateurish, childlike style that gets at the inchoate, abstract nature of love. There is a clammy intensity in both the scenarios Tinsley depicts but also in the formal means she chooses to express her ideas; in the chubby, furtive slashes of paint like a child’s finger painting, that also get at emotion compressed into paint.
Her subject matter also sticks in your throat, front-loaded with genuine pain. This exhibition of paintings, watercolors and one small sculpture includes a work that can feel like a keyhole to Tinsley’s world view. “Hang Your Head Over” suggests a kind of ouroboros. It depicts a couple locked in a pain-wracked hug where their bodies become an infinity loop of suffering, akin to the eternal embrace of Rodin’s “The Kiss.”
A previous entire body of Tinsley’s work centered on the artist grappling with her mother’s wasting away and death. In her new work, life has reasserted itself — green forests and lush, leafy fronds are everywhere, the chlorophyll-colored shorthand for rebirth and renewal. The artist recently had her first child, and these works often deal with a reversal of sorts. Here, it is not a child mourning the loss of her mother, but a mother contending with the enormous responsibility, the glee and ever-present dread of being the center of the universe for a small child.
Parenthood is everything, no matter how you slice it, in Tinsley’s work. Her opening image — “Angels in Heaven Know I Love You,” of goofily smiling angels flying through the heavens — sets the terms of a show founded on love and loss and the circular nature of things. The show takes its titles from a song Tinsley’s mother loved that she now sings to her son.
Tinsley’s paintings show strange, humanoid creatures, bald-headed and cartoonish, clinging to other figures like a drowning man to a life vest. In her take on the Madonna and Child, “Give My Heart Ease,” a mother with absurdly puckered lips plants an exaggerated kiss on a tiny baby cradled in her arms. Feverish love works both ways in “Down in the Valley.” It’s doled out by mamas smothering their babes in kisses, but also expressed in the mildly horrifying painting “Build Me a Castle Forty Feet High,” in which a baby breastfeeds and her mother’s eyes roll back in her head with exhaustion or sublimated, entrapped helplessness. Love is nothing short of fierce and frantic in Tinsley’s hands.
Working mostly in eye-popping shades of acrylic paint — manic reds, pinks and flesh tones — Tinsley conjures up the sinew, blood and guts of human experience: death, birth, the gore of life. The color scheme also summons up the slicker, superficial shorthand of romance in cartoon hearts and red roses. Her color palette is juiced up to the max, evoking the hyperbolic intensity of children’s art and handmade valentines scribbled in crayon on construction paper that can never quite convey the devouring love of a child for her parents.
The only false note in this splendid, expressive show is an overreliance on the rose as a symbol of love that the artist comes back to too often. Instead, it’s her frantic lovelorn humanoids who convey so much better the emotional terms of this exhibition.
“Tori Tinsley: Down in the Valley”
Through Jan. 19. By appointment Mondays-Tuesdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Free. Hathaway Contemporary Gallery, 887 Howell Mill Road, Suite 200, Atlanta. 470-428-2061, hathawaygallery.com.
Bottom line: An Atlanta artist delivers heartfelt work about love and loss.
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