On the Seamy Side: Larry Pearsall

Larry Pearsall, Untitled (2008)

There’s an abandoned warehouse near the heart of Ice Dirt Town, where a bald, bearded and extremely tall pedophile named Bon lords over a harem of barely teenage boys — Lapito, Alex, Day Day, Billy, Ralph, Kevin; amputees Earl (left arm), Fakebein (right arm) and Marleytom (right leg), and about a dozen others. The boys don’t seem to realize they’re being abused. In fact, the few times we see them out of their ubiquitous denim overalls — being tickled or posing for a snapshot — they remain chastely clad in shorts and socks. But the cats see all. The Applebaycats, led by Blato, creep through the broken heating ducts of the abandoned warehouse: observing, commenting and envisioning a better time. A time beyond Bon.

This is the underlying scenario for one of the most compelling exhibits of narrative-based art in recent memory, a tour de force titled “Beneath the Seams,” currently on view at the recently opened DAC Gallery on Main Street at the edge of downtown’s gallery row. Artist Larry Pearsall is soft-spoken but happy to talk about his work and the avowedly fictional world it depicts. “The cats can’t do much. Except this one called the police on Bon. He was the last one to call the police, and that’s when the police came,” recounts the artist. “Bon goes to jail. Him and Molly and Brures. And they were after Balisha and her boyfriend, Reggie.” Balisha leads a contingent of slightly older, mostly African-American teens, who seem to sometimes provide the boys’ escape from Bon’s predations — and sometimes participate in them.

It’s hard to get a clear picture about the exact chain of events, or the specific roles each character plays, because Pearsall unfolds his story in discrete achronological fragments: single-frame tableaux rendered in a flat, jagged cartoon style as acrylic paintings on paper or canvas (as well as sculptures not included in this show) that jump discontinuously between settings, times and characters. Moreover, the almost 100 works included in “Beneath the Seams” are only a fraction of the completed chapters comprising a complex epic that shows no indication of reaching completion anytime soon. Which is probably why writer/director/producer Obie Scott Wade thinks Pearsall’s work is perfect for an Adult Swim–style animated series.

“I fell in love with the notion of animating Larry’s brilliant work because he paints as if God were holding a gun to his head and he cannot tell a lie,” asserts Wade, whose résumé includes Baby Looney Tunes and a transgender version of Shazam!, called Shezow. Citing Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, Wade believes that “if handled properly, animation is the perfect medium to deal with hypersensitive subject matter. Larry is painting a singular universe populated with fully realized characters dealing with some very grimy issues.”

There’s a distinct possibility that an animated cartoon series detailing the exploits of a Jehovah-like pedophile and his prepubescent posse will be perceived as exploitative. Pearsall’s entire package seems almost custom-tailored for the contemporary interzone between cutting-edge graphic narrative and fine art. His work — which ranges from discursive comic-panel structures cluttered with props and speech balloons to startlingly elegant wordless compositions that recall the midperiod work of Jasper Johns — dovetails neatly with the dark and quirky cartoon figuration, Marcel Dzama et al., which gained art-world currency in the new millennium. And his montagist narrative strategy and psychosexual content give it the kind of edgy twist that could easily translate into a slot between Tony Millionaire’s Drinky Crow and multimedia art collective PFFR’s Xavier: Renegade Angel.

But when I put the question of exploitation to Wade, he takes it in a different sense, pointing out: “Larry is represented by a nonprofit organization with his best interest in mind, and they are supportive of his move into animation as well.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Gentle reader, did I neglect to mention that DAC is the latest outpost of the Exceptional Children’s Foundation’s Art Center program, and that Larry Pearsall is one of the dozens of developmentally disabled adults who participate in their full-time studio curriculum? Oops. My bad.

Wade’s shifting of the presumed victimhood from Pearsall’s hapless fictive subjects to the artist himself is not prevarication but an indication of the routine categorical discrimination that still ghettoizes the developmentally different. And nowhere is this double standard more convoluted and galling than in that supposed bastion of free expression, The Art World. While the general populace has been awakened to the validity of autistic savants in areas like mathematics and slaughterhouse design — fields with objective qualitative criteria — The Art World has systematically ensured that so-called “outsiders” stay outside, no matter how preternaturally gifted they may be.

And it’s not just about the money (or what’s left of it), nor the dubious legitimacy of MFA degrees. There are fundamental societal precepts about the nature and order of creativity and their interdependence with dominant rationalist language-based sociopolitical paradigms that are brought into question if, for example, the sculptures of the late Judith Scott — a Bay Area deaf mute with severe Down syndrome, whose work at Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center garnered international acclaim — are equal or greater contributions to human civilization as is a Jeff Koons bunny. No wonder The Art World is so defensive.

The last time I touched base with the ECF Art Center, the prognosis was not good. It had missed the boat on the high-profile community integration and Art World penetration exemplified by Creative Growth (and San Francisco’s similarly savvy Creativity Explored); its onetime corporate exhibition partnerships had evaporated; and its longtime facility on MLK Boulevard was about to be sold out from under the center. Rumor was, ECF would discontinue its presence here altogether, folding the L.A. center into its San Pedro operations.

A little more than a year had passed, when I heard that not only was the studio going strong, but the agency was sponsoring a bona fide white-cube showroom downtown, which would present the work of ECF clients on equal footing with emerging artists of a more conventional background. ECF’s downtown gallery, which opened its doors in November, is the brainchild of new program manager Allen Terrell.

Given the current market conditions, it might seem like the worst timing ever, yet the opening show did very well in terms of sales (which aren’t even really that big an issue, since ECF and similar programs are underwritten by the state). The consumer public has been slower to respond to Pearsall, whose closing reception is scheduled to coincide with the February 12 Downtown Art Walk (though the show will be on view through February 26).

“Larry’s work isn’t so mainstream,” notes Terrell. “When I came on, I saw Larry’s work and I said, ‘This is the one. This is the art star.’ And people thought I was nuts. I think there’s a group that would eat it up, but we haven’t had the ability to find that group. That’s my goal for our clients, to give them opportunities outside the scope of the [ECF] art center.”

What more could you want from a dealer? I’m not convinced that stooping to the level of The Art World pays the proper homage to the unbridled creativity at play in the ECF studios, but Pearsall’s work speaks for itself loud and clear. And until the rest of the world starts painting as if God were holding a gun to its head, that’ll have to do.

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