Infants and toddlers use every method of communication available, from burbles and cries to exaggerated gestures. But as a child learns to speak, the methods lose importance in favor of their newfound knowledge of ABCs. Artist Brian Boner became interested in human communication after his father passed away from a rare form of Alzheimer's that causes the brain to jumble letters and numbers, prohibiting "normal" speech.
The result of his new interest is "The Beautiful Undeveloped," a series of childhood-inspired oil paintings at eye lounge gallery in downtown Phoenix. The show is beautiful but heartbreaking. Though Boner's paintings depict children at play, they contain none of the joy and whimsy of youth — no fluffy pink bunnies, no endearing ice cream-stained pajamas, and most telling of all, no smiles.
In some cases, Boner offers a reason. Home (2009), in which a tow-headed youngster lazily pokes at the letter H in the title, gives a nod to the mortgage crisis. A single silver house stands in the background, its seemingly random swirl pattern formed by the arches and curls of dozens of question marks. Translucent streaks of white paint seep downward from the horizon like a child's tears. Will this lonely boy have a home tomorrow? If the picture of the future Boner paints is any indication, the outlook is bleak.
"The Beautiful Undeveloped" is on display through April 5 at eye lounge, 419 E. Roosevelt St. in Phoenix. Free admission. Visit www.eyelounge.com for info.
Another modern-day commentary can be found in Savings Account (2009). An angelic blond tot is shown aboard a rusty tricycle with his bubble gum-pink piggy bank in tow. In the days when we had ceramic piggies, there was no hole in the bottom of the bank. No plastic-capped opening from which to pluck your life savings before the time came to cash it in. Perhaps that was to teach us the wisdom of investment, a lesson today's young adults never learned. A series of jumbled letters and numbers spills over the top of the painting in glistening white paint barely visible to the eye. To Boner, the glyphs are interminably connected with his childhood — not only because this toddler is at the age where the flutter of verbiage begins, but because of his father's illness. The painting, like Home, is sad and nostalgic; pining for a time when babies weren't doomed to pick up the pieces of their parents' fiscal failures.
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The random letters and numbers also appear in Stationary Migration (2009), the latest in a series of graphic bird paintings that includes the one on monOrchid Gallery's façade, at 220 East Roosevelt Street. Here, a flock ascends in unison, somehow able to communicate direction and flight patterns without the letters and numbers humans are so dependent on. In that way, the winged creatures are like children, who communicate through sound, visuals, and touch before that boundless capacity for communication becomes tamed by the spoken word.
Boner's hyper-realistic children, based on friends and family, draw the viewer into each painting, either sympathizing with the forlorn, lonely children or catching glimpses of their own pasts. It's powerful work that can strike an emotional chord in a casual observer, but Boner does more than that. He transports viewers back into their youth, allowing them to reconnect with childhood experiences — experiences that, with age, fade into the background until they disappear altogether, leaving only Boner's raw linen backdrop.
In The Lakebed (2009), an adorable blond toddler with long, curly locks, dark eyes, and a pouty, stubborn mouth holds up three fingers to indicate her age. "I'm this many!" she tells the viewer proudly, without a word. The land behind her is eerily empty, the canvas left untouched by Boner, save for a swath of green trees and earth in the distance. Boner's decision to leave a portion of each canvas blank has both artistic and psychological meaning. "I wanted to see if I could create a harmonious relationship between the 'labored' and the left alone'," he writes in an artist's statement hung besides a painting of a child observing the wispy dusts of a familiar desert storm. "I see this 'raw canvas' series as a glimpse into the middle of a memory." Regardless of the artist's intentions, the visual metaphor of a child's life as a blank canvas is a powerful one.
With the advent of new technology, communication has become increasingly impersonal. Online articles, even those written by professionals, are peppered with acronyms. Text messages package two-hour conversations in a neat, abbreviated bow. Boner's brutally beautiful paintings suggest that, like his father, we have been infected. Ours is a sort of global communication disorder that, at this stage of technological "advancement," is unlikely to change. So each individual is charged with making the beautiful, terrible decision to either rediscover the childhood joy of communication or let it fade into a distant memory.