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COOL COSMOLOGY
by Ilka Scobie
 
Now I shall speak of the yantra of the Planets, which promotes all kinds of peace.
-- Siva, in the Mahanirvana Tantra

"I try to challenge my own perceptions, the way I look at things. And one symbol of that was to make these paintings rotate," said the artist Thomas Woodruff at the recent opening of his show at P.P.O.W. gallery in West Chelsea, an event that coincided with further stock market catastrophes. What better antidote for economic turbulence than to be surrounded by a heraldic, hip and healing creative cosmology, moving in a constant cycle of repetition and renewal.

Nine of Woodruff’s strikingly visionary, 40 x 40 in. paintings depict opulently decorated creatures that stand in as emblems of the planets. Made using multiple thin layers of acrylic painted on black silk velvet, the works leave "no room for mistakes," the artist says. "I skim the paint to get it bright." The luminous surface has an otherworldly glow. Not for nothing is Woodruff head of the illustration department at the School of Visual Arts.

But there’s more. Each painting includes a double image, presented "topsy turvy" style, revealed as the paintings slowly spin in a stop-and-go rotation, engineered by hidden motors. Astonishing, witty, visually rich and complex yet unerring and precise, the works are, as the artist himself points out, "The most beautiful velvet paintings ever created." (They’re priced at $18,000 each.)

The blue-toned Earth: Our Stern Mother / The Charismatic Zealot juxtaposes a somber matriarch wearing a Star Wars coiffure with a golden-tressed and eerily familiar godhead, crowned not with thorns but a tiara of roses and lilies. Layered paint creates burnished ferns and wishbone amulets. In the weaponed world of Uranus: Legendary Magic / The Dazzling Rodeo Star a phlegmatic seer in round specs transmutes to an adolescent swami in a striated cocoon, while Disney-esque bunnies mutate into ducklings. A lariat arabesque frames the figures and their four gloved hands, each brandishing its own attribute.

Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age / The Brat With Promise depicts a rosy-cheeked cherub, replete with an interplanetary ruffled copper ring, which when it inverts turns into a skull. The gilded fairy tale braids of Venus: The Object of Affection / The Demon of Lust convert to serpentine horns of sensuality, and a medieval hair ornament transforms to a vampiristic mouth. Innocence and a demonic mask float on a background of celestial splendor. Planets are suspended in gorgeous skies of shooting stars and leaf tendril constellations.

The room is dominated by a large Sun tondo, striking and golden, filled with no less than 14 portraits, each divided into three, Asian-style, and doubled again at 180 degrees as the painting turns. Multiple portraits and anthropomorphic blossoms radiate from an incandescent central orb. A goddess, a magician, a patriarch, a satyr and more unfurl into the sunflower oculus. Woodruff is able to change race, gender, and age of his subjects with optical wizardry.

Measuring 70 inches in diameter and embellished with 24 carat gold, Sun mixes Eastern and tribal elements with a dose of American psychedelia. ("I prefer ‘visionary’ to ‘psychedelic’," protests Woodruff.) Traditionally, the mandala is a circle or arc that represents the universe. Uniting tantric harmony with contemporary psychology, Sun is a truly modern meditative mandala.

The artist divides his time between the city and upstate New York, where he has a studio in a converted barn. Woodruff’s planetary series originated two years ago as a response to a dear friend’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. As his friend tackled crossword puzzles to stay intellectually engaged, Woodruff began working on visual puzzles. "It’s a topsy-turvy world. Can a conservative be a maverick, a warmonger, a leader? Something flipped over is something else."

Woodruff sees himself as an "honorary member of the low-brow art world," along with Joe Coleman and the California artist Mark Ryden. Woodruff also draws inspiration from the world of tattoos, a skill that he learned from the legendary Don Ed Hardy, who he tracked down in the ‘80s. Woodruff’s own densely tattooed body is his enthusiastic testament for the outlaw art form.

Nothing if not idiosyncratic, Woodruff makes paintings that are both timely and transcendental. Aberrance, drama and accessibility characterize his imagery, which suggests a sense of harmonic wholeness in a fragmented world.

Widely exhibited both here and internationally, Woodruff has been the subject of many solo shows. "Freak Parade," a series of Archimboldo-like figures illustrating the alphabet, has recently been touring the country, with appearances at museums in Illinois, California and Indiana; the exhibition next opens at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Jan. 9-Feb. 11, 2009.

Thomas Woodruff, "Solar System (The Turning Heads)," Oct. 10-Nov. 15, 2008, at P.P.O.W., 555 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001


ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.