Atlanta-based artist Kojo Griffin continues his meditation on human bestiality in the fourteen mixed-media paintings and works on paper in his first solo show in Boston, where he grew up. Here the boldly colored backgrounds and mystical calligraphy surrounding his menagerie of animal-headed people and personified rag dolls in the works seen at the 2000 Whitney Biennial were replaced with muted color fields lightly penciled with patterns suggestive of DNA helices and chemical or mechanical diagrams. As before,though, apparently innocent anthropomorphic teddy bears, donkeys, elephants, and button-faced cloth dolls with human bodies portray the darker side of human interactions, casually performing political executions, making time bombs, shredding documents, and engaging in illicit eroticism. Unlike Art Spiegelman’s Maus, in which oppressed and oppressor are signified by specific animal species (Jews are mice, Nazis cats), Griffin’s art relies on ambiguity; only the suggested narrative situation determines who is villain or victim.
Just as Griffin’s imagery combines animal and man, his large panels merge pattern painting, drawing, and collage. The hybrid figures, initially drawn in charcoal on paper, are cut out, arranged, and pasted onto a quiltlike abstract ground, shaded and painted in oil; each character is rendered in a single identifying color, and the reduced monochromatic effect evokes a child’s Color-Form set. In Untitled (Man with Explosive Device, Man with Box), 2002, a purple man with a panda’s head sits at a table adjusting the timer on a bomb, while a horse-headed orange accomplice prepares a box for it. The largest and most ambitious panel painting, Untitled (Man with Gun, Man on Ground, Men with Blindfold), 2000, takes as its points of departure Goya’s Third of May, 1808, 1814, and Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867, to portray the execution of three animal-headed men. In Griffin’s version, however, the firing squad is reduced to a single red teddy-bear man wearing a generic soldier’s uniform; he aims his rifle at two bound and blindfolded “civilians”—a green donkey man and yellow lion man—while a third victim lies dead on the pale blue ground beside them under a gray sky dappled with clouds, Rectangular patches of color punctuate the surface like Band-Aids. Helplessness in the face of murderous arrogance is deftly expressed in the troubled expressions of the victims’ eyebrows and the tilt of their heads as they ready themselves for death.
Griffin would do well to avoid the trite domestic subjects of works like Untitled (Child in Crib, Man Yawning), 2002, and overexposed media topics of works like Untitled (Priest with Child), 2002. He finds the right balance in his small black-and-white charcoal drawings, whose simplicity and spontaneity of line show the artist’s formal strength as a draftsman and storyteller. There is a lively sense of sardonic R. Crumb-like humor in works like Untitled (Whipping), 2002, showing a dog-headed woman in high heels and a leotard poised to whip a prone, nude cat man whose oversize testicles emphasize his pathetically kinky sexuality. In his best illustrated stories, Griffin neither softens the dreadful realities of existence nor hides the ever- lasting urge toward power and domination. His sharp parodies of cartoon anthropo- morphism and his characters’ apparent lack of remorse underscore the harshness of this savagery.
—Francine Koslow Miller