If a spaceship were to visit Earth, Waxahachie, Texas would make for a solid touchdown location. Its distance from the major, more reactive cities allows for an unassuming arrival. And once landed, I imagine that local art space curators, Julie and Bruce Lee Webb, would be there waiting, ready to toss a warm blanket across the travelers' shoulders and hand them a cold beer.
But at last night's Webb Gallery show, artist Esther Pearl Watson looked at flying saucers from a departure standpoint, rather than an arrival okra field. That's because her upbringing was much different from yours. Most kids spend childhood staring up at the sky, pretending satellites are spaceships, but not Esther Pearl Watson. She simply looked out the window. Her father labored over grand ideas the same way other dads tinkered with cars on blocks. But his vehicles were destined for greatness: they were designed to fly.
Growing up in a spaceship family comes with instability, a story Esther tells with humorous and tender affection through her painting. While it feels charming with distance, being the house with spare computer parts, sheet metal, gears and rusted components scattered across the lawn wasn't an ideal situation. Neighbors grew concerned, leases were tough to keep and her father's obsession with hovercraft construction didn't leave room for steady employment. The Watsons were poor and perpetually relocating, and Esther's paintings document the shuffling through stories and scenes pinned in 1980s North Texas.
Painted as dreamily as a memory, she blends together dirty metalic color pallets that blur Texas sky with its rural, cracked earth, then fills in characters, businesses in decline, friends, family, watercolor dinosaurs and glittery spaceships. Through her journal-like notations we're given the puzzle's final pieces. In The Porn House (top of page), a storefront with blacked-out windows and plywood doors is being vandalized. A stone slab lays outside a broken window while someone bolts away holding a video. A glittery flying saucer swoops in from above. In the upper right-hand corner Mrs. Watson explains:
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September 30, 1987 Somewhere in Dallas, Texas A child's tombstone was thrown through the Porn House window. That's what I was told. I'm not sure if it's true, but it probably happened.
She brings dinosaurs back to life in Glen Rose, Texas, an area known for strangely combining ancient fossils, a sordid Native American history and nuclear power. (Sometimes a river, is a river, is a river.) Watson shoots the barbeque and chess pie town to super stardom with a dose of leviathan resurrection and crinkly flying saucers.
Some pictures have textiles hanging from the bottom, or tiny built-in screens that pop out like miniature room dividers, protecting the identities of those characters painted behind them. You have to voyeuristically move around the space to see what actions are obscured from view. It's rarely anything to get riled up about, just children playing or some household cast-offs. You realize while inspecting those areas that you've assumed the role of a nosey neighbor, inkling for a look at what those crazy Watsons are up to. Other canvases are fastened onto wooden poles, like the family crest a horseman waves when entering a battle. These flags however, are filled with check cashing stores, dumpster diving escapades and titty bars.
With so many components, colors of glitter and storylines, the collection still manages a warm feeling of cohesion. I'd wager the success lies in Watson's natural urge to include all parts of herself in its telling. Both a career illustrator and a lifelong journal keeper, Watson's work is a mischievous diary come to life. Filled with kid-like exaggeration and imaginative what-ifs, she couples her reminiscing with an authentically refined skill. It's a joy to experience, and it feels perfectly at home in Webb Gallery. You can visit it through January 20, 2013.