John Watts has a proclivity for long-winded title cards in his exhibit at Twist Gallery. One starts as “Caligula’s Ship” but goes on to something that’s part subtitle, part mini-artist’s statement: “When men strive to become angels, they make themselves into devils.” The sculpture has very clear components, so it doesn’t require wordiness. It’s a large piece hanging from the ceiling, in which a bronze-colored man wearing a trim uniform flies with his arms outstretched, his body and legs forming the hull of a ship. Small figures line a rope railing on the deck of this ship, looking down on the gallery. A black dirigible looms over the man/ship hybrid, equipped with a small surveillance camera. The stiff, uniformed figure invokes militarized authority, itself shadowed by the dark form of the dirigible whose camera monitors the room. The uniform and other details on the ship have art deco styling that recalls comic book designs, and that connection with comics helps explain the long-winded titles: they serve as captions, in this case for 3D pieces in a gallery rather than 2D panels on newsprint.
Watts has the characteristics of a good comic book artist: he’s a master mimic of visual styles (the Renaissance and heavy metal make an appearance along with art deco), with a keen grasp of cultural history and a ready sense of moral indignation. His show at Twist gives a great feel for his range—and for his high entertainment quotient.
“World Wrestling for Justification of Deities (WWJD)” has shown several times previously. This piece consists of a set of religious action figures covering most cultural bases, catching Jesus, Muhammad, Ganesha and many others in a net of inclusiveness. It has a little wrestling ring decorated with generic religious ornaments where you can set up Rama and Zoroaster to tag team Jesus or have Thoth body-slam Baab, so everyone’s ox gets gored. This little piece is a lark, but in a world where the major religions are hell-bent on killing each other and taking Creation with them, this act of deflation takes on greater moral significance. He’s undercutting all the deadly seriousness and pointing out the absurdity of competing claims for absolute spiritual predominance.
Religious skepticism comes up again in “St. Germ,” a Renaissance-style saint crafted in modeling clay, dedicated to the bubonic plague. The figure slumps, apparently on his last legs, holding a tablet covered with boils. Another wordy sub-caption explains: “One theory suggests the Bubonic Plague brought about the Renaissance by turning people away from blind faith and toward insight, knowledge, capitalism and creativity.” In this case, the sculpture needs the explanation. It provides a reminder that the iconography of classical saints always required an educated religious understanding to interpret the stories and the symbols. Western art has rarely been purely visual.
Watts’ literary proclivities also play into “Whale and Squid,” a sculpture that depicts a giant red squid attacking a black sperm whale. It’s a scene close to Jules Verne, and Watts adds a layer of interpretation with the subtitle, “or the U.S. and China.” Of course, this image could symbolize any two lumbering powers locked in each other’s clenches—Islam and Christianity, Democrats and Republicans, UT and ’Bama. It’s an all-purpose image.
“Prune Juicer; in this time of aging rock stars it is important for them to get plenty of fiber” is such a striking piece it probably doesn’t need a title. Made from steel, it is literally a juicer with Gene Simmons’ face molded into the bowl, his mouth wide open and tongue stuck way out. The top of his head has a handle that pulls open to reveal a brain plopped down into the cavity, where it serves as the core that the fruit is pressed against. (This is actually a functioning juicer, where the liquid trickles out the rocker’s mouth and down his trademark tongue.) Watts has obvious fun with the ingenuity of his construction and messing around with the distinctive imagery of heavy metal.
Watts takes full advantage of the Twist space, which divides into front and back rooms, in “Waking a Sleeping Giant.” The door to the back is closed, the glass covered except for one circle that contains an invitation to look through. Inside the room, a large figure that resembles a Renaissance sculpture of a Greek philosopher is hanging from his feet and hands and twirling slowly just above the ground. Each of his limbs is attached to a spiky metal rod connected to a spaceship. There’s an inherent tension in the piece: the ships threaten to pull in opposite directions, but they might also be holding the figure aloft. Watts reflects this ambiguity in the piece’s subtitle: “In our quest to answer the biggest question, we can work together and achieve whatever we can imagine, or pull in opposite directions and destroy any chance of knowing the truth.” Like many of the other pieces, an earnestness underlies the humor of jumbling Renaissance sculpture and sci-fi fantasies.
This exhibit has an unusually high level of originality in its images and covers a surprising range of aesthetic styles. In the best pieces here, Watts shows a very assured feel for dramatic gestures, such as the surprise he puts on the opposite side of a peephole. The entire show works like a 3D comic book, where images explode off the walls from all directions, peppering you with questions—and with commentary.