Blank and blue

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Phil Blank‘s paintings at Ashley Gallery are the kind of works that make you hum and smile.

The Abington native, now living in Carrboro, North Carolina, is heavily influenced by bluegrass and country music and his show, “Frozen Songs,” his second solo with the gallery, is his visual counterpoint to the sad song-poems of Ben Hartlage a poet and musician friend. Blank and Hartlage are clearly in sync.

There’s an old fashioned impulse at work here. The paintings are a little like stage sets presenting a performer who’s going to tell you a story. It doesn’t take much to imagine a singer wailing the sad tale backed up by banjo or guitar. (image is “The Ladder,” dedicated to the artist’s father who died this year.)

With titles like “Stocksville jail; Cold, Cold Night,” and “Never Miss You till Yer Gone; Water in the Well,” (shown below right) etc., the paintings inhabit that dreamy twilight in which country and blues ballads croon on in stories both mythic and fresh as today. Lost love, hard living and regrets are right beneath the surface.

Blank paints his works as if they’re verse and chorus.

Each picture showcases one theme — the curse of alcohol; longing for lost love; fear of imprisonment — then surrounds it with a painted frame that encircles it and picks up on the central idea and takes it slightly elsewhere. (image below left is “This Old Pine Box”)

“Man with Accordion,” (top image) is the largest work (48″ tall) in a show of modest sized pieces (most in the neighborhood of 20″ by 16″). In its lifelike portrait of a young man crossing a brook in a forlorn kind of woods, his jaunty Tyrolean hat a little too small for his big head, the picture is a surreal embodiment of the lonely troubador playing for himself because he must. It’s what he does.

I’m always curious about an artist’s background. What fuels Blank’s fire, according to his statement, is a good high school art teacher and a love of drawing. He taught himself to paint using old technical manuals he found in a public library. (He also has a BFA from Washington University, 1994.) His inspirations range from poet Allen Ginsberg to: German Expressionist Otto Dix, Indonesian Puppetmakers, Mississippi John Hurt, the Flaming Lips, Robert Crumb and Brueghel. (image right is “Alcohol Blues: the Burden”)

The exhibit is up through Oct. 31. After that, a selection of the works will move to the gallery’s front space and make way for a show by recent PAFA grad Anthony Palumbo, opening Nov. 5. I’ve written about Palumbo before, and a peek at some digital images of the new work shows the young artist advancing into weird and wonderful new territory (nudes like Cezanne’s monumental bathers standing like giants in a parking lot..).

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