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The Twilight Zone Got Gentrified 

Wednesday, Oct 21 2015
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In David Lyle's There Goes the Neighborhood, a woman straight from a 1950s Norman Rockwell setting — lily white skin, drab haircut, plain dress — covers a badly graffitiedpassageway with rolls of fancy wallpaper. In Lyle's G is For Gentrification, a man who resembles the conservative icon Jesse Helms removes a trash can that contains a frazzled Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. Like Banksy and the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, Lyle mines the aesthetics of past eras like the 1950s for their association with "innocent times," and then introduces an element of modernist absurdity. But Lyle does something that Banksy and Tomorrow do not: He creates detailed, large-scale paintings that seem at first glance to be photographs. And Lyle's emphasis on black-and-white textures accentuates his art's retrograde feel — as if he's presenting a screen shot of an old TV image that's been brought back to life.

"My mom is an antique collector, so I always had this fondness for old things — especially with photographs," Lyle, 44, said in a phone interview from his New York studio. "Everything is digital now, so I just have this thing for old crafts."

Lyle's exhibit at 111 Minna Gallery, "Damaged Goods," is a homecoming of sorts, as the ex-San Franciscan made a much bigger name for himself since leaving for New York a decade ago. As one barometer of Lyle's art-world status, actress Cameron Diaz commissioned him last year to paint a Muppet scene that she could give to actor Jason Segel, who starred in the 2011 Muppets film (and in Sex Tape with Diaz). Lyle came up with Ladies Night, in which Miss Piggy and a phalanx of other excited women cajole a nude man in a strip club. Also indicative of Lyle's growing stature: More people are telling Lyle they dislike his paintings. Too dark, they say. Too embracing of eras that were painful to live through. Being hated is arguably a sign that Lyle is reaching more art-goers than ever.

"There is a dark side to my paintings," Lyle said. "My satire is dark satire."

In fact, the darkness in Lyle's paintings has a slight resemblance to the dark plot lines in a black-and-white TV show that originated in the 1950s: The Twilight Zone. Like Rod Serling's masterful series, Lyle's artwork contains twists that usually undermine the scene's initial impression. In Family Time, an Eisenhower-era family watches an old TV set that's airing a Simpsons episode where Homer is strangling Bart, violence enters the '50s from another dimension.

For all his paintings, Lyle works from vintage photographs that he finds in estate sales, flea markets, and online auctions. He'll look at upwards of 10,000 images before seeing one that gives him an "aha!" moment. From there, he primes a canvas with white gesso, applying all black paint, then spends weeks and weeks rubbing it in and off in strategic places.

"I'm working with shapes and shades a lot," he says, "and I do a lot of erasing. It's almost like a charcoal process but with oil. I never thought I'd paint with one color for the past 20 years, but it's still fulfilling and challenging."

As much as Lyle's paintings area window into eras that existed before he was born, they're also a window into Lyle's current life. There Goes the Neighborhood and G is For Gentrification are commentaries on the real-estate squeeze enveloping Tribeca, Lyle's Manhattan neighborhood. He's being forced out of the studio where he lives and paints because his building is being torn down. Tribeca's ongoing "beautification" also means stamping out the graffiti and street art that was once synonymous with the area, and with New York generally.

"The same thing that's happening in San Francisco is happening here," Lyle says, "and I'm being evicted in a couple of months. I live in the last artists' building in Tribeca, which is now like a billionaire's neighborhood. They just painted over this old graffitied wall that has been here forever."

"This whole show," he adds, "is basically about me. It's a retrospective of the last 10 years of my life."

In other words, it's Lyle's life after San Francisco. Lyle lived here about a decade. He got his first gallery representation here. He formulated his now-signature painting style here. He lived here when renting an art studio was relatively cheap. He doesn't regret moving to Manhattan (saying of his move, "I was ready for a change"). But as he's forced to think about where he'll live next in New York City, he remembers his old Mission studio and gets, well, a bit wistful, laughing at himself. Nostalgia and laughter are fundamental parts of David Lyle's approach.

"I had a cool warehouse space on Florida Street, between 19th and 20th," he says. "I kill myself that I gave that up."

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Jonathan Curiel

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