Coloring outside the lines

John Bankston explores identity and utopia at ACA

Artist John Bankston sprinkles contemporary pixie dust on fairy tale characters in Temptation and Desire at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery this spring. His artmaking looks at the nature of black and gay cultures through the visual structure of coloring books and childhood fantasies. If the black line drawings are emblematic of social constraints and conventions, then Bankston definitely colors outside the lines.

The artist observes people in San Francisco where he lives, drawing ideas from their public personae — transvestite, punk, grunge, hippie — and adds the notion of African masking. He intends to reverse the masking ritual in his paintings: to make the everyday world part of his fantasy.

“Tranny Witch’s Secret,” a narrative sequence in ink, watercolor and pencil on paper, references “Tranny World,” a late-night TV series in San Francisco featuring transvestites. Culminating in a large-scale painting, the visual story recalls “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss ‘n Boots” and other tales of transformation.

A tea party is transfigured in “Picnic.” Two boys wearing little girl wigs with bows sit in a forest enjoying a bottle of wine and a bowl of fruit. In the next image, “Pooofff!” — all that’s left of the couple are puffs of smoke. “Quiet Place,” the conclusion, shows the glen, vacant except for the wigs and an empty wine bottle.

“Brooms” recalls Fantasia’s animated household objects in orange, purple and green. Bankston sees these brooms (and the beds in other new work) as stand-ins for the figure. “I’m thinking about the relationship of the room to work and pleasure, as well as its potential to hold violence,” he says.

Painted violet blue, dove gray and purple, “Riding Desire” imagines a donkey-eared boy riding a great white bird in flight. In “Taken by Desire,” our hero’s expression is sublime as he’s caught mid-air in the bird’s embrace.

For his works on paper, the artist concentrates on the drawn black line, applying color vaguely with light doodling strokes and gentle washes that resemble crayon marks and spilled drinks from a child’s world. When he works in oil on linen, Bankston grows up. Here he is taken by his own desire to explore the plasticity of paint. Oil is reduced to the consistency of watercolor or glaze, underpainted, overpainted and sometimes stroked by the wooden end of the brush.

Last year, Bankston joined about 30 of his contemporaries (including Atlanta’s Kojo Griffin) in Freestyle, an exhibition curated by Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York. The show involved black artists whose artmaking, while still addressing identity, takes the freedom to examine universal issues. Indeed, Bankston’s heroes are often colored in relationships that blur norms for all races; they celebrate the magical possibility of a more fluid identity.

John Bankston: Temptation and Desire continues through April 28 at Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Wed. and Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs.-Fri. 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun. noon-5 p.m. 404-733-5050.??