Growing up in South Dakota, Brian Boner remembers being surrounded by hummingbirds. "They were everywhere," he says, "and if you stood very still, they'd come right up to you and buzz around your face like you were a giant sunflower."
It's a memory that the 32-year-old painter has memorialized in The Tank, one of several oil- or acrylic-on-canvas works that make up "Passwords and Predators," the exhibition of his paintings now on display at eye lounge in downtown Phoenix. In the painting, a boy stands stiffly still, a pair of plastic goggles strapped to his head, surrounded by floating goldfish and apparently random numbers and letters.
"Surrounding him with hummingbirds felt too kitschy," Boner says of the painting. "And then I remembered reading that goldfish have no memory at all. So that was perfect."
Memory and how what we remember informs who we are is the impetus behind Boner's current work, all of it inspired by his father's recent death at 62 from Alzheimer's disease. Each of the paintings in Boner's show depicts a child busily at play drawing, stacking wooden blocks, playing in a sandbox each a reference to Boner's childhood memories and, he hopes, our own.
Who we are, Boner has come to believe, is built on what we remember about ourselves. Watching his father struggle with the dementia that eventually took his life, Boner decided that the ability to remember "is pretty much the foundation of each of our personalities. The experiences you have throughout your life make you who you are; without memories of those experiences, you're a nonentity, someone with no foundation."
After his father died, Boner's attempts at capturing his loss proved elusive. He tried painting people with lopped-off arms and legs, to depict the helplessness of his father's mind deteriorating. These didn't seem right. "Next, I did a series of paintings of crumbling barns and farmhouses, as a reference to my father's life in the Midwest and the decay of his memory." Those didn't work, either. Finally, it was the value Boner began to place on his memories that led him to paint the innocently melancholy toddlers and preteens that populate his new work.
"The children in the paintings are references to childhood memories of my own," he says, "but they're engaged in activities that are universal enough that they'll hopefully remind others of their own childhood memories. I want viewers to think about how valuable their memories are, and how who we are is built on what we remember."
The title of the show refers to the paintings themselves, which Boner calls "metaphorical passwords," and to the real passwords we use to access our e-mail, our bank accounts, "really every part of our lives passwords unlock everything we need today." The numbers and letters that float across Boner's canvases appear arbitrary, and many of them were chosen randomly by the artist simply because he liked the way they looked. Others, like the giant "32" that marks The Tank, have significance to no one but Boner himself.
"Thirty-two was the number on my dad's football jersey," he says, "and I've hidden other significant numbers like my mother's birthday in some of the paintings. I want to point out how we're surrounded by passwords that mean nothing to us, like bar codes on products we buy, but that mean something to somebody. They're like someone else's private memory in that way."
Some of the numbers and letters have more prosaic meaning, like the word "bloom" etched in oil across The Burial of Words, in which a tot shovels letters into a heap, hoping they'll blossom into more of the giant sunflowers he recalls from seasons past.
Boner's benign paintings of kids at play hardly suggest the "predators" of the show's title, but the artist says that's the point. Those things that threaten us, that have no cure or treatment, that sneak up on us and which no secret number can unlock or fix things like rare, fatal illnesses that one can't see coming are the unseen predators in all our lives.
"My father was only 57 when he was diagnosed," Boner says, "and five years later, he was gone. Toward the end, all that was left was his body, sort of like a farmhouse out on the prairie. It caused me to focus on the bigger picture, of how we think of ourselves as who we remember having been. At the end of his life, my father remembered no one."
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