12 Midnite's Taking Liberties shows that lowbrow just means approachable

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      12 Midnite: Taking Liberties
      At the Elliott Louis Gallery until April 2

      The artist who once dubbed himself “the Lord of Lowbrow” has taken a stand in a highbrow setting. Shon Franks, the graffitist, neon artist, hot-rod builder, alternative gallerist, set painter, sign maker, and grunge-country musician better known as 12 Midnite, has created a big show of neo-pop work for the Elliott Louis Gallery. He’s filled this space with acrylic paintings, many of them complemented by flashing neon, machine-cut metal letters and pearlescent car enamel. Also on view are examples of his silkscreen prints, pen-and-ink drawings, and spray-painted skateboards.

      Bombs, guns, flames, bullet-riddled hearts, mind-control spirals, and spectacular car crashes all conjure up what an underground audience has long known as “12 Midnite’s Nitemare World”. It’s our nightmare world, too, shaped by advertising, popular culture, militarism, terrorism, and exploding violence. In his new work, 12 Midnite has revisited a number of images from his visual lexicon. Familiar from his days of tagging buildings and hoardings across Canada and the United States in the 1980s is “Lady Liberty”, his stencilled depiction of the Statue of Liberty pointing a revolver at the viewer. A succinct indictment of American gun culture, it is incorporated into a new painting, Taking Liberties, which functions as a kind of reiteration of his underground art practice for an above-ground audience.

      Also seen in a number of variations is 12 Midnite’s heart-and-crossbones logo, which he believes he originated and which has been widely absorbed into popular culture, from belt buckles to CD covers. At the other end of the appropriation spectrum, the artist has borrowed well-known characters from American comics and cartoons, such as DC’s Sgt. Rock and a devilish Mickey Mouse. They’re used to convey political satire and social commentary—blackly but amusingly.

      Puzzle of the 12 Midnite Universe makes more playful reference to his characteristic images. Whether depicting happy bluebirds, angry carrots, confused aliens, or big bad wolves with fiendishly sharp teeth, each image is painted on one of 16 small square canvases, which cumulatively make up the larger picture. The puzzle, as 12 Midnite demonstrates while touring the Straight through the show, is in the interchangeability of the little squares: you can lift them off their mounts and hang them somewhere else on the grid.

      While considering his new work, Smashup, which includes neon signage and the painted, cut-out image of two hot rods colliding head-on, 12 Midnite talks about the violence inherent in the automobile. “More people are killed by cars than guns,” he observes, then stops in front of a couple of small ink drawings titled Road to Ruin. Each depicts an old car entwined with fiercely animated foliage in a landscape strewn with bones, suggesting the larger violence done to the planet by our dependence on carbon-based fuels. “Oil is ridiculous,” 12 Midnite says. “We’re using a 19th-century technology to move us from place to place when, in my pocket, I’ve got a way bigger computer than flew the [first] spaceship to the moon.” Then he adds: “Yet, we really need to put oil into cars? I don’t believe it.”

      12 Midnite admits to being “a bit of a conspiranoid”, then points out his like-named painting. Conspiranoid brings together flashing neon, which alternates between the shapes of a cross and a dollar sign, with stencilled images of hand guns, cut-metal motifs of squiggly sperm, and graffiti-style spray-painted text declaring “THE CON$PIRACY IS NOT A THEORY”. Among the issues broached here is that of genetically modified organisms. “How do you change the actual structure of life, put it out there into the biosphere, and expect it not to come back on you?” he demands.

      This exhibition, in a mainstream commercial gallery, is an attempt to erase the dividing line between high and low art. “It may be lowbrow, but it’s not lesser,” 12 Midnite asserts. “Lowbrow just means that it’s approachable.” And it is.