Visual Arts

Secret Identity Crisis

His pseudonym reads like that of a second-rate sci-fi author. The name of his solo exhibition is derived from the language of the apes spoken in Tarzan novels. His work is a gold mine of Freudian obsessions, from big-breasted babes with Barbie waistlines to superhero men with bulging biceps and equally engorged genitalia. Everything about artist F.X. Tobin screamed "geeky, pimply-faced teenager with raging hormones" before I even walked in the door of ArtStageSound, a small unmarked gallery on the corner of Seventh Street and Pierce in downtown Phoenix.

I didn't expect Tobin to be a mature gentleman with a bushy gray handlebar mustache and a cabby hat. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I don't envision Steve Martin or Wilford Brimley penning illicit cartoons in their spare time. Even more surprising was the potential of his work, which combines the classical nude with the stereotypical comic-book hero.

Take Creation of Crowbar, for example. The pastel drawing depicts a male nude with rippling muscles that rival early Schwarzenegger on steroids, sporting a tumescent male member. The fledgling superhero is poised as if about to compress a metal crowbar between his palms. Spontaneous, intense energy radiates from the figure in broad, free-flowing waves of crimson and orange. Yet everything about the image is carefully planned. The formulas Tobin used to determine proportions for the drawing are visible in a rough sketch of the piece mounted on the opposite wall. It's this precise, mathematical approach to comic art that sets his work apart from peers working in this style.

His ability to define and shade the human body is even more apparent in Arm Breaker and Heart Breaker, a complementary pair of mixed-media pieces depicting African-American superheroes of the artist's creation. Both silhouettes were cut from thick marbleized paper, giving the skin a chiseled stone look. Brilliant shading in black watercolor creates additional depth and seamlessly blends into the paper's unique pattern. Unfortunately, these works are unframed, causing the edges to bubble and fray slightly. A neighboring piece is topped with the sketch-pad fringe my advanced drawing instructor jokingly called "hanging chads." Ouch.

A series of 10 tongue-in-cheek prints lines the decaying gray concrete walls of the adjacent hallway. In 57 Larry, a greaser in a bright turquoise classic car pauses beside a vapid blonde in a sheer camisole. Cubic forms in the car's paint linger like ghostly graffiti. Tobin's colored pencil strokes are dense and choppy. The female figure has the wide hips, full breasts and chunky thighs of a Rubenesque painting, but her eyes are vacant. Her face and arms are impossibly skinny, almost alien. It's the kind of fantasy you would find scrawled in a teenage boy's notebook long before he mastered the fundamentals of figure drawing.

In keeping with the show's superhero theme, Tobin himself seems to have two alter egos — the experienced, educated craftsman and the awkward teenager — engaged in a cosmic battle for his artistic soul. My advice? Tobin's mature style, categorized by adept modeling, shading and calculated proportions, is better suited for showing in a fine art capacity. The awkward teenager should fade into a role as sidekick, taking his hanging chads, disproportionate women and silly costume with him.

After all, no one wants to see spandex tights on an older man with a bushy handlebar mustache.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden