The villains were the ones who interested artist Charlie Cunningham in the movies he watched growing up. The stories had happy endings for the heroes, the villains, devoid of all morals and redeeming qualities, met a karmic end, and the world had justice.
This trope inspired a recent body of work Cunningham created. His portrait series features characters like Biff Tannen from “Back to the Future” in the scene in which he crashes into a truck of manure, and Harry, one of the burglars from “Home Alone,” with third-degree burns on his head, as well as Mama Fratelli from “The Goonies” and Hans Gruber from “Diehard.”
The characters are not just nostalgic for Cunningham. They are an exploration of the balance of good and evil that plays into his aesthetic, which he describes as “straddling the line between humorous and funny with what some would maybe call the disturbing or grotesque.”
Cunningham is in Jackson through March 16, working as an artist-in-residence with Teton ArtLab. During his residency the Philadelphia artist plans to work on several paintings and also hopes to venture into Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks for inspiration.
“There is something absolutely magic about the park and the area,” he said. “There is this kind of looming and impending doom about being on a supervolcano that has really fascinated me. It’s this really beautiful place that has so much danger and power right underneath the surface.”
Such juxtaposition is central to Cunningham’s work.
“I’ve always seen humor as a really powerful force that is almost overlooked sometimes,” Cunningham said. “In a lot of ways it can be a really wonderful thing. There is almost an enlightening experience when you get the punch line of a joke. But it can also be a very evil force as well. It can be used to subvert and can be used in propaganda. Especially in today’s world, where humor is used in meme culture, it can have a powerful impact on society — good or bad.”
Humor has manifested as a theme in Cunningham’s work for years. Growing up in Connecticut, he always loved art, but it wasn’t until he was almost done with high school that he began to think of it as a possible career. He went to college at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, where he focused on traditional art, studying the old masters, and working from observation and painting still-lifes.
“I am definitely not a classical painter, but it was great for honing my technical abilities,” he said.
He went on to get a master’s degree at Pennsylvania State University, where he studied sculpture and ceramics. He currently works in ceramics, sculpts and paints, although lately his paintings have become more sculptural, sort of like reliefs, in which sculptural elements are attached to a solid background. But Cunningham thinks of them as paintings because they hang on the wall.
Cunningham uses oils, acrylics and pastels, and incorporates urethane foams, silicon rubber, spray paint and polymer clay to make multimedia pieces. He has always liked texture and looking at paintings up close to see the elements that come together to form work. His paintings go beyond brushstrokes and are meant to draw in viewers to see a variety of materials and shapes. His recent paintings featuring abstract blobs of material were improvised.
“I kind of let the materials go where they want and build off of that,” he said. “Again, they are kind of straddling that humorous and gross line, giving the vibe I’m trying to channel.”
That aesthetic isn’t for everyone’s home; it’s for a certain kind of collector, he said. But while he obviously wants to sell his work, he also appreciates capturing the interest and attention of viewers and making them think.
“I think it’s a big battle for capturing the attention of people’s minds,” he said. “I’m happy if I’m holding their attention whether what they are thinking is good or bad.”
Cunningham is planning a Facebook Live event to discuss his work in residence. A date has not been set yet, but information is forthcoming on Teton ArtLab’s Facebook page. ￼