Lloyd Walsh's imaginative creatures leap to life

Influenced by painted menageries of mythological creatures, cabinets of curiosities from the Renaissance, outdated scientific illustrations, and paintings by the Old Masters, San Antonio painter Lloyd Walsh finds inspiration in the grotesque and arcane. Fanciful doll-faced fish, sad-eyed dogs, hearts with eyes, white roses, and a winged skull are among the surreal subjects in his “Solo Exhibition” at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum.

While Walsh’s paintings are usually humorous, his somber palette of earthy blues, blacks, browns, greens, and purples underscores an underlying melancholy. Walsh’s work may appear like a throwback to the baroque period, but he’s a dedicated modernist whose primary concern is the surface of the canvas. Using many rich layers of glazes, Walsh builds up complex patterns and details that make looking closely at one of his paintings like flying over an exotic, unexplored landscape.

He focuses on all the folds, wrinkles, scars, calluses, spots, tattoos, and other discolorations of the skin. Strange patterns — some based on wallpaper — pop up, as well as all sorts of bizarre details and behaviors, such as animals smoking cigarettes. His subjects often appear to be floating in space, yet the neutral backgrounds are rendered with exquisite care for the subtle gradations of color and texture in the gloomy murk.

Painterly magic matters more to him than coming up with titles for his perplexing compositions, which, even with figures and animals in them, always seem like still lifes, purely objects for contemplation like the wrinkled stones on a Japanese scholar’s desk. Walsh’s “Solo” show features three different sets of paintings, dominated by three large-scale portraits of imaginary doll-faced fish that resemble giant pancakes with feathery gills, which Walsh says are based on ocean sunfish, or mola.

Mostly, these whimsical creatures, perhaps commissioned to illustrate some forgotten 15th-century explorer’s dubious account of his sea travels, allow Walsh to display his virtuosity. Folds of flesh suddenly turn into a cliff face, the layers built up in geologic strata. A giant pink and blue fish suggests planet Earth floating in space. Specks and splotches shimmer like star fields. One fish has a giant gill resembling an ear that fills its whole side, with fins and scales rendered in translucent filigree. But the weird doll-like faces, especially the expressive eyes, give the fish a disconcerting emotional range, from astonishment to manga-style megacuteness.

Dogs and hearts are grouped together in a mini-installation that seems to compare canine loyalty with romantic love. Dogs, naturally, come off best. Cynocephali is a portrait of a heroic dog, some kind of hairless hound, outlined by an otherworldly aura, wearing a collar, yet with a human hand pressed to its, or should it be “His” or “Her,” heart. A saint, indeed. This mythical mutt is flanked by paintings of what appear to be opposite sides of the same heart. With eyes and mouths, one appears feminine, the other masculine. And it looks like they’re arguing. Have Cupid’s arrows done more harm than good? A shambling dog, maybe a Dalmatian crossed with a Labrador, is seen from the side, every sore, blotch and imperfection in its mangy hide painted with loving perfection in the largest canine painting, which has all the depth and richness of a Rembrandt.

Italian memento mori with a heavy dose of the Day of the Dead informs paintings of white roses and a winged skull. Walsh’s lavish brushwork makes the rose blooms resemble the folds and shadows of a shroud. Mysterious moths perch on the stems like messengers from the dead. His Mercury Skull, crowned with wings like the shoes of the Roman messenger god Mercury, will leave you shuddering.

Lloyd Walsh: Solo Exhibition

$5; free for members
Noon-6 p.m. Tue-Sat, Noon-8 pm. Thu
Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum
116 Blue Star
(210) 227-6960
Black Box Lunch noon-1 p.m. May 3
Through May 11

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