The Dystopian Demimonde of Dreams

The Lionheart Gallery
Jun 2, 2017 7:53PM

New paintings by Whit Conrad at The Lionheart Gallery

by Douglas P. Clement

Painter Whit Conrad traffics in twisted, opaque narratives that haunt dark dreams like harbingers of what awaits in the netherworld, reaching up into REM sleep like tentacles of psychic doom, and populated by grotesque characters from some dystopian demimonde.

More frightening is each painting’s likely representation of our actual waking status—what we would see and feel if the veil of protective delusion required for self-preservation were lifted away.

Subject matter aside (admittedly difficult given its primacy and power), these works are gorgeous, hypnotic, masterful, and stunning as a suite of 11 canvases as presented in the exhibit Playing What’s Not There, continuing through July 2 at The Lionheart Gallery in Pound Ridge, N.Y. (A talk by the artist is June 10 in a 4 to 6 p.m. event.)

Conrad’s riotous narratives initially obfuscate his technical dexterity, proficiency with composition, finesse with the color palette and flourishes like islands of impasto that, when isolated visually, feel oddly Cezanne-like.

Electors, Whit Conrad

The standout work in the show is entitled “Electors.” In a room where the black-and-white tile floor seems to have suffered some warp of time or space, a tall, lean, cigarette-smoking misshapen praying mantis man casts a ballot at the front of a line of freakish voters, some skeletons, one headless and others almost spectral, as a devil-like character lingers in the doorway. Not coincidentally, Conrad painted it at the time of the U.S. presidential election.

Each of Conrad’s painting begins with a single dreamlike image. “Together we evolve, complicate, suffer, celebrate, transform,” the artist says. “Without a map and without direction, we are free to wander recklessly. Eventually, the painting itself takes over as guide, steering us toward some unexpected destination.”

For Conrad, who lives in Manhattan and Bedford, N.Y., and has a studio in Long Island City, Queens, being an artist is a bit of an unexpected destination. He’s a former corporate lawyer who went on to study at the New York Studio School.

The title of the exhibit is a reference to a Miles Davis quote: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” The artist’s son-in-law, Lucas Farrell, says of the paintings in the exhibit, “In this new collection of vivid, playful, and idiosyncratic paintings, Whit Conrad has applied the jazz legend’s advice to his own work with signature gusto. While Conrad’s paintings often begin in a recognizable setting … they always journey into those liminal zones between notes. … .”

Come as You Are, Whit Conrad

Lady Luck, Whit Conrad

One sweet spot in the exhibit is the vertical pairing of “Come as You Are” with its harlequin, Commedia dellArte character, alien being and Kurt Weill-esque fembot, and the painting “Lady Luck,” in which a naked woman sits at a table drinking wine with a distracted skeleton.

Whether intentionally or not, a distinctive motif running through the paintings are toppled glasses and spilled wine. While spilling wine on purpose is a rite done to court good luck, the images in Conrad’s paintings are ominous, more akin to the Roman belief that wine spilled unintentionally is an omen of disaster. Instead of chasing away the 10 plagues, as spilling wine does in the Jewish tradition, Conrad makes the motif symbolic of the plagues of our time, with no judgment or filter.

A mature artist poised on the verge of wider discovery, Conrad was singled out by Forbes in 2016 as an artist to watch. The dean of the New York Studio School, painter Graham Nickson, recognized Conrad’s talent by acquiring one of the artist’s paintings for his office. For collectors, buying now is a smart move.

Comanche Diptych, Whit Conrad

Playing What’s Not There is a brilliant show not to be missed—and the best kept secret about the Lionheart Gallery, besides its collection of terrific works by a corps of top-tier contemporary artists, is its location in Pound Ridge, a town with enough lifestyle amenities to make a daytrip worthwhile.

The Lionheart Gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information and directions to the gallery at 27 Westchester Avenue in Pound Ridge, N.Y., visit the website at or call the gallery at 914.764.8689.

The Lionheart Gallery