Visual Arts

Family Circus Freaks

Aderelict-looking Toucan Sam clutches a wad of money in one wing, a paper-bag-wrapped liquor bottle in the other. Behind him Cap'n Crunch and Lucky the Leprechaun (of Lucky Charms fame) are in a purple convertible lowrider; Crunch is riding shotgun, firing a semi-automatic handgun at a Keebler elf and that two-faced Shredded Wheat character. The blast has knocked the Keebler elf backward through the plate-glass window of a sex shop that advertises 25-cent peep shows. In a dark alley around the corner, Snap, Crackle and Pop are mugging a teary Pillsbury Doughboy. BuzzBee (the spokesinsect for Honey Nut Cheerios) lies prone in the street. A fey Tony the Tiger (shirt jauntily tied at the bottom, baring his chest and neckerchief) is watching it all unfold next to a bald, effeminate guy friend in a tight, midriff-baring shirt.

This is a glimpse inside of Canadian artist Spyder Yardley Jones' twisted mind, one which he has thoughtfully re-created in ink for visual consumption. Bert and Ernie being intimate, Batman getting high, the Family Circus being massacred -- these are the sort of deranged pieces that will be on display at "Nasty Spyder Bites," which opens on Saturday at reZurrection Gallery in Tempe.

"What I like to do is get revenge on all these pop culture figures that I grew up with -- Cap'n Crunch, the cereal characters, Walt Disney, Family Circus, the Peanuts -- all those that have become institutionalized where people just feel, Oh no, they're great, doesn't matter what they are, doesn't matter how corny and whitewashed it is,'" the 41-year-old artist says from his home in Edmonton, Alberta. Jones says he ducks copyright-infringement lawsuits by changing the characters just enough so they're not exact replicas.

Anyone tortured in their youth by characters like Bil Keane's pasty-faced Family Circus will applaud Spyder's rendering of a bald vigilante (with a spider tattoo) firing what appears to be a converted fully automatic SKS rifle into the fleshy round bodies of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, P.J. and their parents.

"That's a personal one," Spyder says, laughing. "When I was small and we were on holiday, we were in this little cabin and I didn't bring any of my cartoon books. The only thing there was edition after edition of the Family Circus. Scarred me for life."

Cartoons are in Spyder's blood, quite literally. His father, Yardley Jones, was an editorial cartoonist for 32 years, syndicated across North America. "That was the atmosphere I was brought up in, seeing the satirical side of things," Spyder says. "[My father] ruffled a whole heap of feathers. From his years in editorial cartooning, he pissed off quite a few presidents -- LBJ, Nixon, Ford."

"Seeing that my father could raise six kids on a cartoonist's wage just inspired me," Spyder says of his decision to follow in his dad's footsteps. He spent 11 years penning editorial cartoons for the weekly Edmonton Examiner before being fired -- for being too left-wing, he says. Not surprisingly, Spyder has to resist the urge to politicize the pieces he shows in galleries. "Sometimes I've gotta stop myself because it's a natural impulse to speak out about things. It's just I find that that's how I voice my opinion against social injustices and stuff like that, through my art. So sometimes I've gotta just say, Okay, no, we're just doing a fun piece, a happy piece,' and drop the -ism's," he says. "I know when people are going in galleries and looking at artwork they don't always want to be hit over the head with other people's ideas, they just want to look at something that's fun brain candy."

Since his firing in 2001 (also the first year he showed his paintings in the U.S., right here at Thought Crime), Spyder has spent his artistic energies teaching illustration to children and adults, taking on freelance projects ranging from medical drawings to logo design, and illustrating backdrops which were then computer-animated for an award-winning touring production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

A good childhood friend lives here in the Valley, hence Jones' Phoenix connection. His paintings have hung in the Edmonton Art Gallery, where he also teaches, but the majority of his audience and patrons reside here in the Valley. While he can't make it to the upcoming show at reZurrection, he's focusing on creating new pieces for an upcoming show in his hometown. "I haven't had a show [in Edmonton] in three years, I've just been concentrating on the Phoenix shows. So I think I'll go hit the locals, because my style -- I go around the art galleries and there's nothing like it around here, it's mostly still abstract and landscape paintings. I think I should be rocking a few minds around here, that's for sure."

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Brendan Joel Kelley