The Arts Company | January 3–31
by Karen Parr-Moody
The paintings and woodcuts of Ke Francis can be simultaneously naïve and haunting, reminding one of the range of Mexican folk artists with their topics teetering from workaday life—Diego Rivera’s hearty peasant women rolling out tortillas—to heartbreak, such as the deep symbolism with which Frida Kahlo depicted her personal tragedies.
Then there is the macabre, including the eerie beauty of Juan Soriano’s painting The Dead Girl and the gruesome energy found in Francisco Goitia’s paintings of Mexican Revolution battlefield scenes.
Altogether, Francis’s work communicates a similar mélange of emotions and dark moods, along with the tradition of storytelling that Mexican folk artists, as well as Southern folk artists, have long possessed. This will be boldly on view at The Arts Company this month.
Francis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi’s post-WWII culture of the South, which still held in its grasp folk art’s text-based verbal culture. This art informed Francis, who didn’t visit a museum until he was in his late teens.
“The sense of the primitive, the folk art, to me these are strongly communicative pieces with narrative intent,” Francis says. “And they are often works in which technique is not as important as content. I certainly come from that side of the equation: narrative, less interested in technical facility, though I think I’m a fine craftsman.” Francis feels, rather, that the takeaway the viewer should have is one of intense and powerful emotion.
Francis began his education as a student of aerospace engineering at Mississippi State, but soon discovered he wanted to draw more than the wings of jets or missiles. He then studied art at Memphis State University and Memphis College of Art, graduating from the Cleveland Art Institute in 1967 with an MFA, specializing in sculpture.
After university, Francis studied with the esteemed American painter and teacher Henry Hensche, then moved back to his studio in Tupelo. For the next 26 years, he worked successfully as an artist, showing nationally and internationally. His work could then be seen in museum exhibits and found in galleries in San Francisco, New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City. (His works are still found in the collections of more than two dozen libraries, museums, and universities.) He also won many prestigious grants.
One of his beloved pursuits is that of printmaking—he owns so many presses it takes seven trucks to ship them. This love was also why he took a hiatus from fine art from 1996 to 2012 to work at the University of Central Florida—he was brought in as the director of Flying Horse Editions, a collaborative research studio that trains the next generation of printmakers.
Today, Francis no longer creates large sculptures. (“That’s a young man’s game,” he explains). But he is involved with an array of other artistic disciplines, including writing short stories and poetry and making elaborate books. His printmaking operation in Tupelo, Hoopsnake Press, has become the hub of an art scene that includes a handful of his former students.
He names various artistic influences—the German painter Max Beckmann is a key one (like Francis, Beckmann was also a printmaker, sculptor, and writer). And anyone who views Francis’s Hanging Garden Monument II during The Arts Company exhibit will easily see the influence of Paul Gauguin.
“I’m a well-educated, well-traveled Southerner, so when I pass over someone’s territory during my personal aesthetic search, I usually recognize whose space I’m passing over,” Francis says of the obvious similarities. “And Gauguin is an interesting character in a lot of senses.”
“Either you produce your own obstacles and overcome them by your own mistakes and idiotic behavior, or you survive other people’s obstacles that they put before you.”
Francis also deeply enjoys writing and says that the dark sense of humor found in his work can be attributed to his admiration of Harold Pinter plays. In his painting Two Rafts with Monkey creepy creatures are confined in an oceanic expanse by flimsy wooden rafts. They remind Francis of Pinter’s zany plays that feature a group of people who are isolated in various ways. He likens the rafts to a small stage and the animals to characters involved in a nonverbal narrative situation. The works contain an implied narrative as well as the chance for the viewer to make up his or her own story.
And they contain that dark eeriness that seeps out of every one of Francis’s works.
“I believe in survivability and I believe in the power of the human spirit to overcome obstacles,” he says. “But man, we keep putting them out there, the obstacles. And that’s the human condition: Either you produce your own obstacles and overcome them by your own mistakes and idiotic behavior, or you survive other people’s obstacles that they put before you.
“But I’m basically optimistic that the human condition will remain the same, and humans will survive it and come out smarter on the other end.”
Ke Francis’s work will be featured this month in The Arts Company’s exhibit Of Things to Come. The artist will have a solo show at The Arts Company in October 2017. For more information, visit www.theartscompany.com. To see more of Francis’s work, visit www.hoopsnakepress.com and www.thecarongallery.com.