Picture it: a skeleton with a keen eye for color paints a Zombie-pin-up-girl with severe angular outlines against a cartoonish background. What is it? It’s Ryan Ford’s “Humanary Stew” (2011) at Factory Fresh, and it proclaims the talent of the undead.

Ryan Ford, “Humanary Stew” (2011) (all images by the author) (click to enlarge)

This comic scene is the perfect introduction to some intriguing new work on view in Bushwick this month. Beat Night this past Friday showcased how many of today’s artists are drawing upon various forms, styles and traditions to bring new monsters to life. This isn’t just about Halloween. There is a perennial appeal to monsters and other beasts that keeps horror movies profitable, fake blood on the shelves at Ricky’s party and makeup store year round and the gothic is always a potent theme for visual art.

One of the fiercest monsters was the Leviathan at Centotto. In Tim Kent’s charcoal drawing “Leviathan” (2011), an aquatic serpent opens its mouth wide, fiercely flashes its fangs, gyrates its long slithering body and wrecks a ship. Kent employs charcoal’s smokey and smudgy qualities to deftly render the sea’s mist and splashing water. At first glance, the restricted monochromic palette of the charcoal makes it hard to discern where the beast ends and the sea begins. It eventually sharpens into focus, but only after aptly recreating the alarming feeling of confusion at sea for the viewer.

Tim Kent, “Leviathan” (2011)

A menacing minotaur threatens viewers at the English Killls Gallery. Rob Andrews’s “End of Empire” (2011) takes the villain of Greek myth and plops him into an eerie lake scene from modern times. The background has some unusual details that reward close looking: a coiled electric fence, a guard tower, a sunken boat. The intense sharp focus of the c-print makes the entire scene look very realistic — if you can suspend disbelief and pretend that a Minotaur actually exists. I love it when photographic technique does magical realism like this.

In Adam Thompson’s “Crab” (2011) at Centotto, a dilapidated wooden structure mutates into a frightening crab beast. It’s depicted in a small scale. But it’s very effective at this scale — if it got too large the details of the architecture might start to distract from the crab shape. It doesn’t look friendly.

Other paintings in Ryan Ford’s show at Factory Fresh depict demons and zombies. It’s a playful and whimsical take on monsters. For example, in “Don’t Play Me Like An Indoor Sport” (2011), green-faced creatures charge on horseback towards an abandoned house. The show is only up until November 10, so it’s worth catching this weekend.

Rob Andrews, “End of Empire” (2011)

Evolutionary psychologists argue that this monster imagery hits the “detect the leopard’s spots before it kills you” button on our brain.

A 2007 study argued neural vestiges from the prehistoric era still frame our vision. The experiment demonstrated that is far easier to perceive shifts in an animal’s appearance than some clunky manmade shape because we naturally fear that an animal may have the potential to attack.

So when a picture of a leviathan, a minotaur or a crab house picture looks far more interesting than a boxy geometric abstraction, psychologists reason that your primal side may well be activated. Our brains are hardwired to pick up on scales, spots, horns, claws and all of those other gruesome threatening bestial patterns. And arguably, part of what makes a monster fierce is when these features are accentuated.

There’s another psychological level to monsters appeal — monsters don’t follow the rules — they just do what they feel like doing.

Most of us suffer from a mental tug of war between what we want to do and what we think we should do. The angel on the left pricks our conscience, asks us to say no, tells us just to follow the rules and to put off having fun. The devil on the other shoulder commands us to enjoy, to say yes just this one time, to bask in pleasure and to screw the consequences.

Monsters don’t suffer from this tug of war. They give in completely to their (twisted) pleasures. The Leviathan wrecks the ship because that’s what it feels like doing. And that minotaur looks capable of anything — do you really want to discover what he feels like doing? Nevertheless, these unchecked drives, unbridled impulses and un-inhibited pleasure secretly fascinate us.

Beat Night: Bushwick Art Spaces Stay Open Late took place this past Friday, October 28 from 6-9pm at gallery spaces around Bushwick. Beat Night is a bi-annual event organized and promoted by Jason Andrew and Norte Maar every February and October. The event was sponsored by Hyperallergic.

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