A master of visual trickery and playful subversion, Steve DeFrank works with seemingly familiar materials and subjects to create a sense of accessibility and knowability in his work that enables him to tap into complex issues with a wry mischief rather than didacticism. In This Ain’t No Picnic, his second solo show at Margaret Thatcher Projects, what appear to be planks of wood chiseled with pithy, socially aware graffiti, upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be painstakingly crafted paper boxes painted with casein, an ancient milk based medium. The result is a delightful and willful suspension of reality, as the interplay between text and material comes to full effect.
For this exhibition, DeFrank has taken his subversive tromp l’oiel one step further— creating a life-sized picnic table constructed entirely of painted paper. Rife with pithy aphorisms, puns, and off-color jokes “carved” into its surface as though it were stationed at a rest stop somewhere along the New Jersey Turnpike, the piece is a dialogue within itself. And though you just may find “for a good time, call…” on the surface, DeFrank artfully applies his wry and cutting sense of humor to the fray, creating something that moves past mundane graffiti and becomes a conversation about contemporary life and values. Just below a carving that exhorts “luv your body the way it is” a wise-cracking response is carved: “You wouldn’t say that if you were a zombie,” and a third vandal adds “or if you had a viral infection.” Another tag proclaims “I <3 my 2 dads,” and yet another points out “your ego is showing.” As the viewer spends time considering the table, the ultimate pun is revealed: however bright and delightfully packaged, contemporary life, it seems, ain’t no picnic.
DeFrank’s art is first and foremost his own private playground, a vehicle for exploring issues central to his personal identity. He grants elements often considered kitsch by the artistic hierarchy, validity by inserting them into fine art conceptions. Transforming the playful into the significant while making the all too serious humorous, the artist reveals his own approach to life. Resigned to the inevitable hurdles that arise, DeFrank and his paintings triumph through a resilient optimism and a persistent sense of humor.
DeFrank, who has also had solo exhibitions at Clementine Gallery and Clifford Smith Gallery in Boston, is represented in the permanent collections of the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the West Collection.