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by Jennifer Rabin | Published March 22, 2016

Artist David Bray's philosophy is "use what you've got…whatever implement is available immediately, right now, no excuses." This would explain the materials list for his painting series Amateur Occult Club: stolen paint, marker, Wite-Out, ballpoint pen. It also accounts for the feeling of in-your-face immediacy you get from the work.

Bray renders his figures with a single black outline, flattened against a solid matte background. Cheeks, nipples and tongues provide the only flashes of color. Part naive, part Sailor Jerry, the images are incredibly simple, but it would be a mistake to write them off as simplistic.

In Joan of Arc/Voice of God, Bray paints a woman's head in profile, like a hieroglyph, her raven hair adorned with an Egyptian falcon. At the top of the panel, the name Bill S. Preston—a reference to the eponymous character in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure—is lettered in reverse. It's disorienting because your brain tells you that you are looking at a mirror image of the painting instead of the painting itself.

Bray continues this conceit throughout the series, distorting and manipulating words and numbers, perhaps inspired by another naive painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who frequently crossed out text in his paintings. He believed that by making certain words difficult to read, it caused the viewer to be more curious about their meaning.

In Grail/The Hills Shall, a woman bleeds from her ribs into a chalice. Disembodied praying hands, the kind you'd find tattooed on a felon's neck, hover over the font of blood. Next to it, Bart Simpson's head is scrawled in pen, as though some hoodlum had walked into the gallery with a Bic and tagged the work after it was hung. Except the hoodlum is Bray himself, and there are elements of defacement in all of his pieces, whether Bray is doodling symbols next to graceful figures or scratching the hell out of the painted panels to make them look like they've been dragged behind a car.

Bray's great skill is his ability to combine disparate influences and iconography with pop-culture references to create his own visual language, a sophisticated aesthetic of fuck-you punk. In the art world, we call this "successful appropriation," a fancy way of talking about stealing, something Bray might be referencing in one of his pieces when he writes in a faint unsteady hand, "Everything I stole is better than everything you stole."

SEE IT: Amateur Occult Club is at Stephanie Chefas Projects, 305 SE 3rd Ave., Suite 202, 719-6945. Through April 2.

Originally featured on Willamette Week

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