Science and Semiotics: The Pop Surrealist paintings of Eric Kuhl at MercuryHead Gallery

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Eric Kuhl, Come and See, oil on panel

by Tamara Fox

If Hieronymus Bosch, Kenny Scharf, and Mark Ryden made an art baby together, it would look like Eric Kuhl. The panel paintings included in Free Your Mind and the Rest Will Follow, feature a cast of characters and props that include animals (real, hybrid and anthropomorphized), scientific and religious symbols, toys, food, and a sprinkling of pharmaceuticals. Ranging in size from a few inches to three feet, they’re meticulously researched and composed, sometimes involving as many as forty preliminary drawings.

I stopped into MercuryHead Gallery last week to pay for some custom framing, and was immediately drawn to Eric Kuhl’s paintings. Laury Baker and Ben Perrin were knee-deep preparing for Kuhl’s exhibition Free Your Mind. After we discussed nearly all of the fifty pieces, I asked for Kuhl’s contact information and left (without settling my tab).

Several days later we met at the gallery. When I mentioned Ryden, Kuhl told me that he conscientiously avoids looking at contemporary art that resembles his own. I was puzzled with this statement, but over the course of our conversation it was apparent that the motive is to remain focused and keep his ideas clear, and he has a lot of ideas. Kuhl’s many interests are evident in the paintings; Folk tales, religions, semiotics, and genetic engineering–all make regular appearances. The conversation was so engaging that it was at least fifteen minutes before I noticed his lavender fingernails.

One way in which his fascination with language is apparent is the prevalent use of puns as sources of inspiration. The bovine subject of Cash Cow has Johnny Cash‘s face. Meatier Shower depicts a stick figure holding an umbrella against a downpour of raw meat. A gooey cheese sandwich with gold-capped teeth is the subject of Grilled Cheese Royale.

In Land O’ Milk and Honey (GMOooo) the head of Elsie the cow springs from a giant pat of butter floating on a pool of honey tended by cartoon bees. An atomic mushroom cloud erupts in the background of Cockroach Evolution. One of the three insects appears to have been transformed into an iridescent über roach. Explosion VI is a polluted underwater vignette inhabited by a squid with a tampon applicator serving as its shell.

In Kuhl’s work, the patient resilience of animals contrasts sharply with the frenetic madness of humanity. Twinky Trial is a tiny painting that refers to the 1979 murder trial defense of Dan White, who killed the Mayor and Supervisor of San Francisco allegedly after a sugar binge. Fossilius Hominum, Musings and Expectations of Past Thoughts looks like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel. What appears to be a fortified city is comprised of colorful toys and prosaic objects arranged as a kind of modified timeline.

While he’s clearly passionate about many timely and urgent issues, the tone of these works is not doomsday. Kuhl isn’t proselytizing from a soap box all red-faced and self-righteous. He’s more like your favorite grandparent who sighs and says, “You know better.”

As a teenager, Kuhl created airbrushed designs on customized trucks. After art school his career started just as digital graphics were being introduced into the industry. He was successful and became particularly proficient at designing logos. Two years ago however, he decided to take a break from design in order to concentrate on his studio practice. He pared-down his life, releasing all but four clients, and moved into a residence owned by a friend. Free Your Mind is the output of this hiatus.

Visitors to the gallery can see the works during business hours, but I strongly recommend that you attend the opening. Kuhl is a fascinating man, refreshments will be as quirky as the featured works, and guests are encouraged to come dressed as eccentrically as they choose. There will be limited quantities of posters available for purchase, as well as t-shirts designed by the artist.

If you are in need of custom framing, I highly recommend the services of MercuryHead. Perrin and his posse can frame anything, and the workmanship is exceptional.

The public is invited to the opening reception Thursday, October 13 from 6-9PM.
MercuryHead Gallery is located in Grand Rapids at 962 Fulton St East

Regular business hours are 10AM-6PM Monday through Saturday

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Laury Baker of MercuryHead Gallery shows me the collection of small panel paintings awaiting frames for “Free Your Mind, the Rest Will Follow”

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