Killer wit

Event: "Explorations of Suburbia" by Carl Knickerbocker, Harris House, Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Feb. 13-March 20, 1998

Subhead: Carl Knickerbocker knocks 'em dead with humorous expressions on a society on conflict

Don't be fooled by the cartoonish characters and splashes of bright color in Carl Knickerbocker's paintings: There are issues of deep conflict worked into every brush stroke. His work may engage the viewer with childlike playfulness, but it is anything but child's play.

Look close at one of the Chuluota-based artist's paintings. Just as the first, fun impressions are settling in, there comes a powerful kick: If it's not clear in his recurring cast of icons -- TVs, windows, ladders, cars, flower pots, human hybrids of birds and gators -- then it leaps out in the clever, catchy titles he attaches to his paintings, such as "Manifest Destiny" (pictured on the cover) or "Another Bad Day in the Suburbs." You laugh because you get it. Then you sober up because you really get it.

Without passing judgment, Knickerbocker is able to embody in his icons and their surroundings the mounting challenges and conflicts facing Americans in this increasingly complex and strange contemporary culture.

The self-taught artist describes his style as "Suburban Primitivism" -- "a hybrid of folk forms, urban graffiti and a dash of pop perspective," as he puts it in his mission statement. His trade is social, political and environmental commentary on canvas, and his subject matter tackles the biggies: overdevelopment, overconsumerism, sexual politics.

Knicker-bocker, who is easy to engage in conversation about his work, doesn't offer solutions to the issues he raises. He's just an amused spectator -- from a politically liberal viewpoint. And as a product of this culture, he's caught up in the trappings himself.

"Each of my paintings is a self-portrait," says the lanky 43-year-old.

That's an amusing statement when you consider a character such as gatorman, one of his Florida-inspired mythical creations who's found on the prowl in several of his paintings. It's much easier to see the artist in other of his icons, such as the writhing being that lays helplessly in a newer set of paintings that he calls the "Onstage" series. That figure is a pathetic creature reduced, one assumes, by fear of self-exposure under scrutiny by peers.

Bingo. We all know that creature. And that's the connecting strength to Knickerbocker's work: People can easily find themselves, their frustrations and their antagonists in his myriad manifestations. His presentations are simple but still challenging, entertaining but enlightening. He offers no conclusions, but reaches out in understanding, tempered with a shrug of the shoulders. Conflict is rarely so amusing.

This year is shaping up to be a big one for the career of Knickerbocker, who only began painting when he hit his third decade. A solo exhibition, "Explorations of Suburbia," opens Feb. 13 at the Harris House at Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach; it will run through March 20. (The opening reception is 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Feb. 19.) Given that center's reputation, it's a significant affirmation.

Also just installed at the Civic Theatres of Central Florida is his "Ethnocentric Dogs" series, on display in the lobby in conjunction with the production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Hanging through Feb. 22, these paintings involve two colors of otherwise identical dogs -- green and blue -- grouped and positioned to relay the artist's observations about racism. "The green ones always come out on top," he says. Telling titles include "Top Dog" and "One Nation Under Dog."

And Knickerbocker recently signed an exclusive marketing agreement with the Robert Thomas Galleries in Winter Park. The local representation (he has similar arrangements with Alexander's Metroart in Ybor City and Studio E Gallery in Lake Worth, near West Palm Beach) frees him from some of the demands of self-promotion and marketing. The connection also validates both his art and its marketing potential.

"But I'm still out there pushing," he says.

For the last 16 years, Knickerbocker has lived in a cottage on a slice of old Florida in Chuluota, where he works as a caretaker. From his rustic studio, he has nurtured his art along with the azaleas and orange trees that dot an estate on which development is closing in. You find these native roots reflected in works such as "The Last Orange Grove in Seminole County" -- a handful of trees sitting in flower pots.

Step into the screened front porch and the smell of paint is all around. Almost every available space yields to canvas. Interestingly, Knickerbocker says his artistic process always begins with words; the images follow. The back of a door serves as a catchall for scraps of paper with words -- "Jesus is coming, so you better look busy" -- that he will translate into his paintings.

"He uses symbols that everyone understands, but places them in environments that allow us to look beyond the meaning of the symbol and really focus on the issues within our communities," says Lisa Messersmith, the manager of Harris House who championed Knickerbocker and helped to curate the exhibit of 20 or so of his pieces.

"He is very focused with the work he is currently creating, but he still has the freedom to be spontaneous," she says. Also an artist, Messer-smith finds his work unique and poised to break out of his native habitat.

"I think he is an exceptional artist," says another fan, Carole New-house, a New York art consultant. A chance meeting with Knickerbocker at the Robert Thomas Galleries, where she was curating the current Hunt Slonem exhibit, made her an instant believer. She has a particular interest in artists who haven't had professional training, a growing trend among collectors.

"I think his work is real cutting-edge in terms of the political statements he is making and the position he is taking," says Newhouse. "His compositions are done well -- his placement, his color, his collage -- it is just exceptional."

Knickerbocker is well-practiced in connecting with an audience. Until recently, he had a steady promotional outlet in a painting-as-performance job at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, which intersperses artists among the tables and where Knickerbocker painted for three years.

"The Tu Tu Tango experience was a wonderful thing that changed the way I paint," he says. "It made me a better painter. For me, it made the process more exciting." It also streamlined his goals, which now are: (1) to make art; (2) to get people to look at it.

"It changed me personally, too," he says. "I was kind of shy ... but it loosened me up personally, and it loosened up the work." Moreover, it sent his work out of state, carried home in the hands of visitors from New York to Nebraska. He says he'll continue to seek out similar live performance events. That's a free-spirited aspect of his painting that he shares with his friend and sometimes collaborator Keith "Scramble" Campbell.

Knickerbocker's past accounts for some of his influences. There was an unhappy childhood in upstate New York that instilled a feeling of not belonging, of being on the outside. There were his sociology and history studies in college, and political activism during those years at the height of the civil-rights, antiwar and women's movements.

But Knickerbocker's work is about the present. And he's happy now, a feeling that came about three or four years ago as his life became infused with all that his art brings to him. Like the culture he reports on, his art is continually evolving. Like his art, he is primitive yet sophisticated, whimsical yet grounded. Still, he insists, "I'm an outsider looking in."

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