Thru Nov. 9
Themed around great musical and pop culture icons and legends of our time, the Thrasher-Horne Center’s Icons & Legends exhibition features artwork that highlights celebrity in impactful ways. Local artist Kyle Willis’ mixed media portraits have grabbed people’s attention. Large-scale, colorful, and familiar busts are rendered with precision, using marker and acrylic paint, onto a background of maps that show the place they are from. For example, renowned rapper Biggie Smalls is painted on maps of Brooklyn, New York, in his piece King of Brooklyn (shown left); and Malcolm X is painted onto Nebraska maps.
This approach to portraiture began as more serious pen-and-ink portraits Willis created on commission in South Florida. When a digital media internship brought him to North Florida, he noticed different tastes. He began to experiment with different graphic substrates – book pages, then comic book pages – and different media, garnering new clientele. Some of his comic book series hang in the studio of local performing legend and comic writer Al Letson and collaborator Willie Evans Jr., for example.
The Atlas series in particular was born of a doodling exercise Willis would practice at home. After finding an atlas at a nearby store, he says he would “flip it open to a random page and say, ‘Hey, Alexa, tell me some celebrities from Nebraska,’ or whatever page it was on.” He says he was constantly surprised by what he found out, and would pick a celebrity to draw on the map.
Through posting these pieces to social media, he gained recognition. Willis shares that he was attending one of Thrasher-Horne’s Thursdays at Thrasher art walks when he met the gallery director and was asked to be part of the Icons exhibition. His existing Atlas pieces were 11-by-14 inches, but the gallery requested larger ones, so he created five 24-by-36-inch pieces made with decoupaged maps on gallery-wrapped canvases. In his sixteen exhibition pieces, along with Smalls and Malcom X, his subjects include blues musician Robert Johnson, Muhammed Ali, Dave Chappelle, and Nikola Tesla, for which he had to order maps of Croatia.
Willis says the other two artists in the Icons show add drama and humor. Local painter Tony Miller uses puns and pop culture mash-ups in his pieces, such as Lionel Ritchie and Ritchie Rich, Saint Peter and Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, and two eggs painted over Easy-E.
Photographer Kim Reed took advantage of the Rolling Stones’ visit to North Florida and added fresh photography from their concert to his exhibition pieces.
Willis has various projects going currently, and hopes to someday reignite his popular and expansive project LACT (Local Artists Coming Together) Trading Cards. His focus now, however, is exhibiting his own work and keeping it authentic. “I won’t paint something just because it’s popular,” he says. “It’s got to be something I can have a conversation about.”
Lee Adams Gallery at Thrasher-Horne Center, 283 College Drive, Orange Park, (904) 276-6815.