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Insomniac Dreams 

click to enlarge Board, David Austin, acrylic on canvas, 2006. Austin’s paintings will be exhibited at Carrie Haddad in Hudson through March 4.
  • Board, David Austin, acrylic on canvas, 2006. Austin’s paintings will be exhibited at Carrie Haddad in Hudson through March 4.

“I don’t paint paintings, I grow them,” David Austin explains. His art is featured in “Tell Me a Story: Narrative Works,” a group show at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson through March 4.

Born in Berkeley, California, Austin grew up in a farmhouse in rural Fulton County, near Utica. He majored in art at the College of St. Rose in Albany, where he studied traditional techniques of oil painting. Fifteen years ago, when his wife was pregnant, he switched to acrylics to avoid the toxicity of oils. (At that time, his studio was in his apartment.) Austin uses multiple glazes of color, over a base of texture paste, which adds a subtle thickness to the paintings. He works very slowly. One canvas may require 30 layers of paint.

Asked if his dreamlike narratives derive from his sleeping subconscious, Austin replies: “No, the opposite; I get a lot of my imagery from not being able to sleep.” In the twilight state between waking and dreaming, scenes appear to him. Also, during the day Austin carries a notepad to jot down vagrant thoughts.

His first “suit paintings,” in 2005, were a reaction to the wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, and other infringements on civil liberties ushered in by the Patriot Act. Gradually, the paintings have evolved. At first the faces were blurs, like fingerprints, but they are coming into focus. “When I first started painting suits, in my mind they were devious and sinister, but over time, I’ve started to give them souls,” Austin says, chuckling.

Austin describes a suit as a “full body mask.” Looking at a series of his works, I was reminded of the Men In Black and the Blues Brothers. Before they were a movie, the Men in Black belonged to the mythology surrounding UFOs: ominous men in suits who would arrive after a spaceship sighting to erase the memories of the observers. Men in suits, like clowns, priests, and soldiers, lose their identities inside their garments.

Austin’s paintings elicit widely divergent responses. One viewer began laughing hysterically. Others find them creepy. Last summer, in a gallery in Troy, a couple had a furious argument over the meaning of Austin’s art. “The gallerist was afraid they would come to blows,” the artist says. Austin’s paintings are almost like Rorschach tests, inkblots that each test subject interprets differently. Coincidentally, Austin has been experimenting with Rorschach images for the last several months, making hundreds of inkblots. He’s not sure why, but he’s compelled to produce these symmetrical enigmas.

A suit is a neutral covering for a male body. Looking at these images, we find ourselves wondering if the men in suits are the Good Guys or the Bad Guys. Is it sometimes necessary to kidnap a woman—for her own good? One thing is certain: The men in suits are never democratic. They work for their own shadowy purposes, and they never ask permission.

“Tell Me a Story: Narrative Works” also features paintings by New Paltz artist Tona Wilson. Trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, Wilson moved to Argentina after college, returning to the US fluent in Spanish. She has worked for many years as a court translator, giving her an intimate view of America’s criminal justice system. Works by self-taught artist Anima Katz, many of them celebrating African American culture, also appear in the show.

“Tell Me a Story: Narrative Works” will be exhibited at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson through March 4. (518) 828-1915.

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