Nashville Artist Beth Foley Depicts Real and Imagined Crime Stories in Vivid Oil Paintings

Murders, Misfits and Other Unpleasantries,” Beth Foley’s new show at David Lusk Gallery, sounds like the title of a collection of short stories—which is fitting. Each of these nine oil paintings is based on a real-life narrative. Some feature infamous criminals, while others pull from the artist’s family history.

It’s not hard to guess which is which. Leopold and Loeb (2016) and Criminals in Cars: Dick and Perry (2015) are based on the stories of real, widely known murderers—Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, whose 1924 killing of a 14-year-old Chicago resident was then called “the crime of the century,” and Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, respectively. Others, like Uncle Eugene and Uncle Neil (both 2015), come directly from Foley’s past. The title character in Uncle Neil, dressed in red plaid, looks contemporary enough, but the central figure of Uncle Eugene appears out of another era altogether—and not one that Foley could conceivably have seen herself. This mixing in of her own ancestry is based partly on the family’s archives, and partly on Foley’s imagination.

So what does Uncle Eugene have in common with Perry Smith? The show’s title suggests that they’re all misfits in one way or another. “I am interested in human nature and what motivates people to do the things they do—for better or worse,” Foley says. “Worse, of course, is much more interesting.” Foley generally doesn’t portray her characters caught red-handed or committing criminal acts; she just hints at their misdeeds or ill-fate. The the gaunt-looking boy on the sidewalk in Leopold and Loeb, for example, is presumably Robert Franks, their victim; in Uncle Neil, a picture frame hangs askew and a nervous-looking baby glances at something unseen; in DYBBUK (2014), a skeletal, yellow-eyed spirit  clutches the bare torso of a woman as figures from the old country linger behind her; the titular children in Hansel, Gretel, and the Ghost Children (2015) appear haloed in pale blue, like they were cut out of other compositions and superimposed onto the scene. There’s an ominous feeling that pervades these paintings, though you’d have to guess at the specifics of the crime or misfortune in question.

The fact that Foley based many of her characters’ appearances on photographs certainly comes through in her vivid, expressive renderings of the human face. Note the differently directed gazes, and the telling expressions, of the faces in Leopold and Loeb. Her “misfits” are, by turns, stiff and uncomfortable-looking, formally posed as if for a portrait, cartoonish, doll-like. They sit strapped into antique automobiles or hover in the night sky as if in a dream sequence.

Foley’s style borrows from a range of influences: is there not something Velázquez-like to the spatial relationship of the figures in DYBBUK, something distinctly reminiscent of Grant Wood’s American Gothic in both Uncle Eugene and Hansel? And what do all of these artists share if not a taste for drama and dark humor? Drawing on history but ultimately cutting her stories short, leaving the past and future out of these moments and veiled in mystery, Foley suspends us in uncomfortable contemplation.

Bridget Gleeson

Murders, Misfits and Other Unpleasantries” is on view at David Lusk Gallery, Nashville, Jan. 5– Feb. 13, 2016.

Follow David Lusk Gallery on Artsy