Animal cruelty

Kojo Griffin combines elegance and terror at Saltworks show

Maurice Sendak meets Don DeLillo in Kojo Griffin’s elemental drawings of hatred and hurt — tales sure to result in bad dreams galore.

That storybook parallel has never been clearer than it is in Kojo Griffin’s latest body of Works on Paper, on view at the new Saltworks Gallery. Devoted to watercolors and charcoal sketches, these works out-grim the Grimm Brothers in a dystopia of violence, sexual manipulation and assorted treacheries.

Griffin uses animals as stand-ins for humans, and normally that device might be a way to elicit empathy from children in depicting creatures more vulnerable than themselves. Here the use of animals reminds us of the essential brutality of our natures and adds a chilling element of inevitable, innate cruelty to these allegories of human malfeasance.

Animals are beaten by other beasts, a janitor toils while a yuppie chats on his cell phone, another creature wearing a gas mask appears to doctor an envelope with some dangerous contaminant in Griffin’s inventory of modern ailments. Issues of class, of sex and the intrusion of very contemporary fears of water contamination and letter bombs fill Griffin’s work with a portentous, unshakably dire ambiance that also seems partly rooted in the raw wounded-child perspective of graffiti culture.

One of Griffin’s recurring characters amidst the pachyderms, horses, birds and bears are crudely sewn Raggedy creatures with vacant button eyes that rework a vernacular of cuteness into the realm of the creepy. These creatures are as representative of Griffin’s worldview as Keith Haring’s radiant, atomic babies were to his. The Raggedy creatures suggest people stitched together and a legacy of damage evident in every suture on their bald, bowed heads.

In the small, vividly colored watercolors, a daddy beast engages in some troubling exchange with a young girl beast. There is a suggestion of molestation in the image, but the element of ambiguity is telling. Like the situations themselves, in which an older person hurts a smaller one, the lines are never clear, the experience clouded with fear and confusion.

Punched up with juicy colors, tart lemons, corals and greens, the use of lively color, despite some harsh subject matter, again reaffirms the connection to children’s literature, just as the use of heavy stock brown paper in the charcoal drawings gives a craftsy, kid-like quality to the work.

The same strange, ethereal quality that characterizes Griffin’s paintings continues in these drawings, which put a sorrowful, wounded twist on subject matter that ranges from the commonplace and sad — like the woman critically appraising her body in a full-length mirror — to the abhorrent, as a soldier prepares to execute two blindfolded beasts. The images are so spare and simply drawn they become like some semaphore or universal symbol of barbarity. Not unlike New York artist Laylah Ali, Griffin’s work abuts the simplicity of a child’s imagination with the brutality of an adult’s. In a freeform, casual style, Griffin haphazardly fills in the colors of his watercolors and in many of the works, allows previous sketches and fragments of other drawings to bleed through, confidently asserting the hand of the artist as his reputation grows.

Even the relatively peaceful and ordinary scenes, perhaps because of their proximity to Griffin’s more disturbing images, contain a frisson of pathos in which small fragmented moments of joy are wrenched out of a pain-filled world. Tender domestic scenes, of a father animal sleepily attending to a crying baby or dishing out a stovetop meal for a child, present a humble, quotidian family life against a cacophony of trouble. But for the most part, these images — like two animal-children playing on a seesaw — provide little relief. It’s like being told to go out and play and have a good time after learning that the parents are divorcing or father has lost his job.

The looming charcoal drawings Griffin has sketched directly onto the Saltworks Gallery walls are less clear-cut. They depict white-collar scenes of workers shredding documents or toting cardboard document boxes, but the statement about these activities Griffin is making is unclear.

As unique as Griffin’s content and style are, the artist also boasts a succinct, terse drawing style that manages to convey an accuracy about human behavior in miniscule, simple details. The particular way Griffin sketches the yawning mouths of a tired father and baby, or the hunched posture and lewd, curt crook of a man’s hand as he proffers a bill to a stripper, convey the nuances of body language and the essence of human interaction. That abbreviated, terse style is what gives Griffin’s work its unique elegance, and also its inescapable terror.

Kojo Griffin: Works on Paper runs through April 27 at Saltworks Gallery, 635 Angier Ave. Wed.-Sat. noon-6 p.m. 404-876-8000.??