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An Empire of Unending Horror - but Funny

by Dakota Lane (from Direct Art Special Edition, Fall 2003)

Tim Slowinski's portraits, suburban scenes, evil icons and allegories defy easy categorization. Dealing with greed and corruption at a variety of levels, he draws us in through vividly painted raucous scenes. Nothing escapes his fictitious macro-lens: we zoom into situations of heightened paranoia and depravity, where absurdist humor fuses with an intense sense of horror.

His work bears comparison to a number of diverse painters and yet shuns any direct influence. Slowinski is in the avant-garde of the post-apocalyptic painters of the 21st century, finding an uneasy alliance with similarly dark art which depicts grim and lurid situations but falls short of his more fully realized vision. His work more aptly relates to the painters of centuries past.

Like a medieval moralist, he depicts a decadent pervasive evil-but instead of isolating it in a hellish realm, he pulls it straight out of America's heartland-its suburban homes, shopping centers and financial districts.

His clear, sophisticated palette, sense of detail and precise, translucent layers of paint are technically comparable to the masters. And yet his use of jet black outlines, which serve to underscore the simultaneous humor/horror effect, evoke a singular, strictly modern vision.

Slowinski's work appears as much influenced by the literary masters as by classic painters. His paintings of suburban families echo the bleak psychological landscapes and twisted humor of Kafka. Orwellian principles are manifest in Slowinski's satirical contempt for hypocrisy, through his raw depictions of money brokers and use of farm animals as metaphoric stand-ins. His sharp, bitter humor and cheery, careening presentation serves to underscore his depiction of an empire of greed, bestial sexuality, over-mechanization and disconnected family.

It is fitting for an artist from the MTV era to create work that is not only filmic-(witness the vertiginous angles of careening grocery store aisles and suburban streets)-but video-evocative. The sudden flashes of movement, intense imagery and quick scenes are perfect food for a serotonin drained, attention deficit brain. The subjects themselves convey the attributes of the TV addicted-whether victim or perpetrator, they portray a traumatized, jangled persona: women with shell-shocked eyes engaging in automatic pilot activities, a series of suburban "blockheads" who like automatons are heading out into the world of daily business. Each painting an eerie gift from a seamless and continuous world. He achieves this through acute and painstaking precision, sparing no care with the homeliest detail.

Every scene feels connected to an even more seriously unhinged world and he provides those connections through depth of perspective. The vanishing point never quite vanishes; there is no respite to be found even in a sunset. If the central image is perverse, the peripheral images are even more so-he uses the periphery of the canvas to create a mounting, Hitchcockian sense of paranoia. Little catastrophic scenarios are often unfolding just at the very edge of our vision.

Alternately, he devises a pocket of placidity so calm as to be deranged-utterly still buildings, spotless streets, perfectly groomed lawns seem to be the breeding grounds for untold acts of aberrance. His work is nothing if not relentless; every aspect conspires to create no exit from the house of horror called daily existence. Even the domestic details are unsettling, things look like they are about to crawl out of the perfectly aligned cereal boxes and they often do. The nobility of mankind is present only by its absence from his work; further dehumanization is represented through people being fused with animals, crossbred with machines, entrapped within a labyrinth of technological tortures. In one comic and viscerally disturbing portrait, a man is fashioned entirely out of gold coins.

Slowinski touches on the robotic nature of modern humans. We rarely see a flicker of sensitivity or choice in his subject's eyes. With the detachment of a surgeon, he explores the subtleties of flesh, from its variant subtle tones to the way it drapes over sinews and muscles. He depicts grand obese people not only to represent the ugly American, but to indulge his love of form.

Although race sometimes seems incidental in his paintings (the obese African American man in Fat Black Man could just as easily be white)-it is more often a conscious choice, used as way to bring home man's acts of injustice and violence. In Dearth of a Nation and Chicken Heaven in Harlem depictions of rape condemn centuries of racial and economic slavery.

His subjects are lonely to the point of pathology-the sense of alienation is acute, acts of physical intimacy are brutal (The Rape of Gumby, Nazi Medical Experiment)-even the members of his "Psychedelic Family" triptych are painted alone. In Dysfunctional Family, he offers a portrait of literal enmeshment-body parts of various family members are knotted together, arms becoming tentacles, intertwined and entangled, a quiet yet palpable hysteria simmering beneath the placid facade of every person.

The emotions of Slowinski's subjects are often underplayed. The suburban mothers tend to wear frozen masks of stoic calm; victims of various tortures have a chilling sense of complacency, sometimes infused with anguish that cloud their eyes like those of sainted martyrs.

Slowinski's mordant wit and fatalistic humor serve to cut through the niceties like a laser. Apart from his generous gifts as a painter, the strength of his work is derived from his honesty; his unflinching reiteration of his vision of modern America provides us with a mirror that may be less distorted than we wish.

Dakota Lane is an author and art critic.

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