David deVillier paints interior landscapes. In his paintings -- on view in the exhibit Tilted Days and Lovely Leanings at the Hayes George Gallery -- expansive vistas cradle intimate symbolic objects. The meaning of the objects -- to each other, to their environments and to us -- is a matter of conjecture. DeVillier has constructed inviting, sometimes beautiful, sometimes inscrutable narratives. He makes it easy, even pleasurable, for the eyes of the doubting curious.
A black bird stands in profile stock still, perched on a single green stalk rising from a kinked end table. The bird stares down hypnotically at a thick glass flower vase on the table. The bird waits and stares like a cat at a mouse hole. She believes, or wishes, and waits. The vase end of the table is minimalist Scandinavian (Ikea Era, c. 1980); the bird's end of the table is a lacquered black surface dancing with festive red buds and stems. The tabletop is kinked in the middle of the two surfaces, as if busted and repaired. The bird will observe, but not cross, the divide. She longs.
Behind the table is a turbulent green sea gnashing below a wide, white cloud; the sea churns and gurgles and disrupts the quiet tableaux of silent interior dialogue between bird and vase.
This painting, "The Lost Flowers," and all of the paintings here are symbolist and surreal. Not the laughs-for-ratings, rib-poking, "aren't they idiots?" surreal of The Surreal Life, but the real surreal of the European painters of the last century. The paintings by Breton, Max Earnst and even, God forgive me, Salvador Dali can emotionally unhinge us, but unlike the TV show The Surreal Life, they don't make us want to run to the shower or apologize to someone for being human. They rattle without shame. But they must first invite and seduce.
Bad surrealist painters poke, prod and stun us, and leave the door closed. Really bad surrealist paintings are cartoons of stupid disjunctive elements. Good surrealist/symbolist paintings leave the door open on a curious and disjunctive view, and good painters reel you in. David deVillier can do that.
In his paintings, images are displaced, plucked from appropriate or expected times and places and plunked down in unlikely environments. Images -- bird, vase, busted table, sea and sky -- are symbols offered up to us by the artist. We are invited to either infuse our own meaning or try to figure out the artist's.
In "Who Cannot Hear the Sea?" another black bird stands in silhouette. This bird is on a thin black wire, strung taut, running above a watery horizon line beyond the left side of the painting. The wire begins inside a gabled house and is pulled from an unknown source beyond and behind the picture frame, at which the bird stares intently. Her gaze is stolid, endless and immutable. The bird alertly rests inside her single room within an open-walled stucco house. She looks like a plane in a tile-roofed hangar. The structure is spare and monastic, more rain shelter than home, more Amish than Catholic. The bird's house is perched on a thickly impastoed, waxy field resembling baked vanilla ice cream. Red and white flowers bloom in a blue and gray foreground.
The allure of the painting is the felt emotional divide between the serene, la-de-da landscape and the hyper-alert bird perched on the high-tension wire. The bird's intense, unattributed gaze invests the bucolic landscape, the whole painting, with an unsettling hum, like pond waters electrified. The juice is unseen but felt. It's a hold-your-breath-and-exhale painting.
DeVillier makes his own frames. Most painters should not make their own frames; deVillier is an exception. His frames are made of wide plate steel, with four pieces carefully welded at mitered joints and grinded down. They are black, stout, severe, rough and finely assembled. They house and protect the (mostly) delicate paintings, like a fine brick shithouse wrapped around a Tiffany lamp. Like the images and material elements in his paintings, the frames run contrary to the ephemeral, softly spoken, sometimes melancholy paintings. The contrast fits as snugly as an elephantine apple in a very small room.
In "Having a Heart Head Does Not Work," a scarecrow stands in a field, with sorrowful and vexed eyes set deep within his heart-shaped head. His fat short fingers project from fat short arms, a pose about as scary as an ignored hug. His fingers dissolve into the sky; he appears to have begun the process of willfully disappearing. Birds perch carelessly on his head and hand. He wears a great coat of many colors over black slacks and stands alongside a wheel-less cannon barrel and a horseless wagon in an otherwise empty field. The pale sky is a thinly clad pink and yellow skin stretched over the frenetic painting. There are no crops -- nothing to protect in the field -- and the scarecrow is the only one frightened. He is bereft and ill from loneliness.
The black steel frame cannot protect this injured, useless, ineffective and marvelously dressed man in the field. He is an anchored migrant worker, his home a finely painted and fruitless field. He reminds me of a sickly old woman sitting nervous and exhausted under the midmorning sun in her walled off, desiccated garden. This is where having a heart for a head has gotten him.
"The Woman Who Lived in a Place She Did Not Understand" is one of the largest paintings in this show, yet still maintains deVillier's penchant for intimacy. It's the best painting here.
A twin gabled dollhouse, with bronze and green patina roof and lap siding, is shadow cut diagonally under the afternoon light. A benign, mottled brown and green sky floats over the house, and a distant stand of glowing ultramarine greenery lines the horizon behind the house. The front yard blooms ambiguous brown and yellow buds. The surrounding grass is staged with a set of nine boxy trapezoids with angled tops, resembling coffins in size and rakish top hats in design.
In the center of the painting is a four-armed cactus, arms uplifted and insouciant. Two poles with a wire between them flank the cactus and resemble a clothesline. A lone woman stands atop the tallest boxy trapezoid. Her tree trunk legs rise up and under her orange polka dotted black skirt, her hand held to her throat. She is pensive and thoughtful; there is a decision to be made.
Is she considering a jump over the clothesline? Where to plant the next trapezoid? Wondering how that cactus grew overnight? No. The painting's title reveals her dilemma. She wonders why she lives in a place she does not understand. What a bizarre thought, a bizarre painting. Surreal. And what lucky soul among us has never been here?
The exhibit Tilted Days and Lovely Leanings is showing through June 3 at the Hayes George Gallery, 225 E. Worthington Ave., Suite. 100. For more info, call 704-332-3278 or go to www.hayesgeorgegallery.com.