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Justin Fry just opened “Fractured Navigation,” his first show in San Diego, at Artlab Studios in Normal Heights. The LA-based painter’s work has taken him all over, even so far as an almost-job in Dubai where the artist would have appeared on film, working on a mural. The Dubai trip ended, however, when Fry’s appearance proved too controversial for conservative Islamic attitudes in the Middle East.

“Basically, I was too fucking ugly for them,” the tattooed and bearded Fry says, laughing.

His new show brings him close to home and showcases the artist’s recent paintings. Frantic motion, vibrant colors, rich textures, and a preponderance of human skulls characterize his paintings. At first look, Fry’s imagery seems grim and violent, but he says the skulls function in exactly the opposite way.

“It’s something that unifies. We all have the same stuff underneath,” says Fry. “I don’t want it to be morbid, that’s why I try to do these bright colors. If you spend some time with dark subject matter, something good can come from it.”

In fact, Fry wants to turn the very idea of the skulls topsy-turvy.

“I like to play with heavy, loaded imagery. Sometimes, you can booby trap stuff like that by using playful colorways. Whether it’s in the paint itself or the subject matter, these lighthearted booby traps can mask a loaded image and prevent it from being overwhelming.”


Part of that overwhelmingness, for Fry, is in the very act of painting. Frenzied motion in his work is an effect of trying to cram the entire genesis of a painting--the forty, fifty, sixty hours of work and dreams behind it--into the single still image. Passing Anxiety is, on one hand, a motorcycle crash depicted on canvas. On the other, it’s metaphor for painting itself.

“There are all these images of anxiety and death, all the horrible things that can happen to you, but it’s just a split-second that happens in time. When the painting has all this work in it and you’re stuck with just this one image, it’s almost like the moment of a crash. I like juxtaposing those two thoughts.”

Sometimes, he just wants to booby-trap the nobility of portraiture with pure idiocy. Captain Asshole, a Mannerist portrait of a modern-day daredevil clutching an open 40, creates what Fry calls a “heavily rendered painting, but having it be so absurd that it’s anchored in Renaissance style but deals with this ridiculous, lowbrow image.

Detail of *Captain Asshole*

“It’s something that someone who would buy a $10,000 painting would want, but it’s a horrible image of a an idiot.” That juxtaposition is at the heart of all Fry’s work. His own term, “booby trapped,” is probably the best descriptor for paintings of day-glo skulls and erudite assholes.

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