Billy Copley, Beauty Contest, 1997, mixed media on canvas, 77 × 59 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.
Inside Billy Copley’s subconscious, cartoon characters, declarative statements, and phonetic alphabets battle for attention. Using acrylic paint, watercolor, collage, and rubber stamps, Copley allows his mind to tumble out into a two-dimensional maelstrom. There is a narrative but no sequential structure—the story an emotional and contemporary whirlwind with our commercial world as its domicile.
Images like Fruit Loops and an outline of Barney the Dinosaur’s head float menacingly. Letters forming words (contest, bad, dab) and phrases (no fair, my book of love) pop you in and out of the paintings and elicit all kinds of memory-related emotions. The work delivers a kind of voluptuous angst, similar to reading an overloaded Ralph Bakshi cartoon; while the veneer of jokiness takes you back to adolescence, when you coded information to remove yourself from the power of feeling.
Although many of the paintings are the size of a doorway, the images in the paintings are tiny. Small skeletons and cartoons join cocoons and shapes that look like candied nipples, all floating in what could be a cloud of nerve gas. It’s a world both hellish and funny. And it’s an American vision—appreciating the crackpot and the dumbness in everyday life, while pointing out the shaking earth beneath our feet.