Pop goes the folk art

The first colors you notice are the solid pools of drab browns, sickly whites and the crumbled yellow of old paper that cover nearly everything. Even the figures — the focal points and foregrounds of the paintings — seem to sink into the mire of dismal hues.

You wonder where, exactly, the artist is trying to take you. The exhibit is Humph and the artist is Brian Haynes, co-founder/owner of downtown Asheville’s secondhand- and alternative-music hotspot Almost Blue.

According to the free promotional postcard, the show’s name is an allusion to the title of the first studio recording by jazz-cat/bebop founding father Thelonious Monk.

Stark, antique pools of bright pinks, Day-Glo(tm) oranges and bubble-gum purples are the next level to emerge. In its own way, the effect is subtle — subtle like a billboard.

Most of the two dozen works in the exhibit depict formative figures in American music, loose portraits of the people who shaped what’s come to be called “roots music” (i.e., bluegrass, folk, bebop, etc.) Vinyl and CDs by many of these same folks fill the bins at Haynes’ store. Set against the otherwise-stark display walls of Dirt and Sky People Gallery, the paintings appear as complex, swirling boxes. Viewed individually, however, these near-caricatures exude the primitive, unschooled appeal common to today’s much-stretched concept of “folk art.”

Squeezing these works into that bin, if you will, may make them easier to place. But for some reason, you can’t: Haynes’ work just pops.

It crackles with a raw, visual energy, taking your attention by force. One smallish, circular piece is a painted vinyl record; though thick acrylic paint covers the once-grooved black surface, the label remains untouched and legible. It’s an Isaac Hayes album — his first, in fact. A cartoon-ish rendering of the soul king himself regards the viewer with a bemused smile. It could almost be a piece of promo art — except that instead of the standard slick, four-color repro photo, there’s a brown, acrylic face and overly bold, hand-painted text. You couldn’t ask for a more honest piece of art.

Haynes treats his other subjects with the same care and attention to their status as musical icons. Buck Owens is presented in his familiar swaths of red, white and blue, carefully framed in a wooden box with hand-burned guitars. A singing Edith Piaf jumps out of a shaped block of flat, black wood that sits on a knee-high pedestal of dark-washed purple. Colorful, art-deco letters spell out Edith’s story for you. It sounds like a mess, but the whole disjointed thing collapses together just as it should.

Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and Elvis also put in appearances, each with an appropriate nod to his familiar pop-culture image.

One thin wooden panel, devoted to a more obscure mover and shaker, is orange, green and purple; everything about it screams “wrong!” But it pops. Folk pop — and another genre is born.

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