New York

William Copley

Iolas Gallery

At the Alexander lolas Gallery William Copley’s (or CPLY as the signature goes) mock innocent illustrations pay homage to the Yukon ballads of Robert W. Service, a vagabond bard who was born in 1874. Cply’s pictures are titled with verses from these narrative jingles about the region’s legendary taverns and brothels. With a small vaudevillian cast of faceless mounties, provocative blondes and barmaids, or men in bowler hats and herringbone suits, he illuminates the waggish humor of the rhymes, and in a broad decorative style that enhances the subject matter while it turns us away from any (erroneously) serious or weighty considerations of the works as high art. Once accepted, as they should be, on the level of book illustration, the disregard of traditional painterly methods for modeling, perspective, and draftsmanship becomes even more charming for its deceptive naiveté. Cply’s distinctive manner is a broken-contoured drawing filled in by bright, hot colors, and characteristically Matissean patterns, such as red hearts on a purple and orange checkerboard wall, flowered kimonos, or curved hatchings. Actually, the cartoonish figures are deployed quite artfully in the gambling den halls and bordello bedrooms, and it is with a knowing candor that Cply portrays such verses as “And glad and bad, kimono clad, the wanton women wait” or “Of course I know a girl is tempted with mountain men a fussin’ round her skirts.” As in cartoons, he will often isolate one feature of a face, such as an “O” for a mouth, or star-shot Orphan Annie eyes, using these to convey the emotional or humorous tone of the picture. He has often been noted as a pioneer of Pop art (he started painting in 1947), but the difference is that Cply creates his own whimsical and nostalgic comic strips, the pun being excusably literal. The scenes allow us to sing along with their rollicking, inoffensive lustiness, and it is Cply’s skillful use of ornamental devices which particularly (but barely) saves his work from a mawkishly sentimental modishness.

Emily Wasserman