I come away from some shows with a song mysteriously buzzing at my brain, implanted by associations with the imagery. While immersing in the gritty, dream-like urban realms of Isaac Payne's "Rose-Colored Glasses," currently on view at AXOM Gallery, my inner antenna picked Black Star's "Respiration" out of the ether. Payne's recent mixed-media paintings on paper capture snapshots of the unending shift of the urban landscape — old architectural bones abut the newly risen armature of sky rises — and also considers the impact of living under such artificially seismic conditions.
The way that Payne's paintings are presented mirror the way that he works: large, patchwork configurations are pinned directly to the gallery walls, just as they are in his studio while he creates them. Each composition is constructed out of various shapes, sizes, and patinas of paper fragments from a paper collecting and scrap recycling operation Payne developed in his studio.
"The curious patterning and myriad perspectives of urban space became the meeting place for my disparate painting influences — rock art, crazy quilts, Western Realism, Eastern landscape painting, many modernisms and other influences," Payne says in a provided statement. "I use a patchwork of freehand techniques and painting/drawing media to depict a felt environment that is equally about architecture and absence."
Drawing is the foundation of all of the pieces, says AXOM Director Margot Muto. "You get this tension of these areas that are highly rendered and illustrated, against these abstracted backgrounds of washes and shapes." Though he's literally constructing the images from separate pieces of paper, the worlds within the compositions are actually deconstructive visions of the buildings and spaces.
Some of the compositions fill large stretches of the white walls, making the work seem more like a real scene spied from across the street than a painting.
In "Bicycle Church," two possible narratives emerge: It is perhaps a long-neglected urban space claimed by bright Conte matrices; or those red lines could signify the ghost of a giant that once scraped the gloomy sky.
The anonymity of Payne's human subjects, when people are present in the bare scenes, indicates the fluid nature of a city's populace. These figures, the exposed architectural bones, the maze-like living spaces, and sweeps of streets are lovingly pieced together with abstract fields of color and texture. Even the absence of form is filled with atmosphere and mood.
Muto explains that through his layered, patchwork wonders, Payne is illustrating the isolation aspect of our contemporary human condition, in relation to our man-made urban environments. His work responds to "this idea of how these man-made structures have, in our modern day, really been built to keep us in compartments and isolated," she says.
"Rose-Colored Glasses" reflects the concept of that veil that enables us to walk through it every day and still stay optimistic.
Payne's muted colors are often quickened by veins of intense hues, accelerating the impression that the city is breathing. Something about the palpable, chaotic energy vibrating beneath the veneer of serenity in the work reminds me of the modern, urban folklore stories by Charles de Lint. I can almost see de Lint's mythic characters dissolving into the pitch of an alley in "Babel," or gathered for a smoke on the cluster of fire escapes in "Ediface."
Though elements that are specific to Rochester are identifiable (a familiar sky rise from Rochester's downtown dominates the wee picture, "Sunrise Bus Stop"), much of the scenery can stand in for any city.
In Axom's main space just outside of the gallery proper, a sampling of Payne's smaller works hang, including a graphite and collage piece, "Walking Sketch," which is the only piece in the show that contains more than a whisper of natural setting. Within this serene scene, a lone figure trudges past a cabin in a snowy patch of woods, leaning slightly into an invisible wind.
Though this is his first time showing at AXOM, Payne's connection to the space runs deep. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, he graduated from high school career in Rochester, where he attended East High with Margot Muto. After graduation, Payne spent several years working as an intern under Margot's father, Rick Muto, on various historical narrative public murals that remain on Rochester's walls today. Later, Margot and Payne both attended Cleveland Institute of Art. Payne is now based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he serves on the Board of Directors for McColl Center for Art + Innovation and teaches painting at Central Piedmont Community College.