It is a bit too easy to imagine Joe Banda as one of those shy middle school dorks; the ones drawing Martians and gorillas and monsters and disproportionately busty girls on their book covers. After all, his paintings are filled with men with reptilian heads, horn headed losers, and disembodied eyeballs, tongues, noses and ears.
But it would also be too easy to believe that Banda is some naive folk artist. After struggling academically and socially through high school, he went on to study at the Delaware College of Art and Design and earned a BFA from the Montserrat College of Art. He knows his stuff.
There is an illustrative quality in his acrylic paintings that purposely eschews “beauty” for something else. It is the creation of a world unto itself, not any less real than any other.
His influences likely might include the graffiti artist Keith Haring but with a far less clean line pop sensibility. Some of Banda’s work echoes the energetic and frenetic scribblings and depictions of human-animal hybrids and allegorical figures of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Certainly, Mad Magazine and underground comix and the Cartoon Network fed his art frenzy. The paintings, many with text, pull from the great well of the cultural commons, in which one senses the charming grotesqueries of Basil Wolverton, the self-satisfied misanthropic urges of R. Crumb, the cynicism and self-abasement of Daniel Clowes, and the visual wit and sheer goofiness of Gahan Wilson.
“Satan’s Pool Party” features a gathering of red devils and brown serpents bobbing in a pool. In Banta’s imagination, cheeseburgers and Coors Light are served in Hell. And although it is noted that the party “kinda sucked because it was really small…no one was uptight about calories so I ate judgment free.”
There is an oddly-shaped painting called “Hey Dad” that is reminiscent of a stand-up comedian’s monologue about being an adult son living with his parents. There was no animosity between the son and the father but there was awkwardness, having little to say to each other. The comic noted walking into the kitchen in the middle of the night and saying “Hey Dad…wassup…so you still seeing Mom?”
Banda’s painting captures that kind of familial disconnect when the three-eyed, four-armed son greets his father and the father (also three-eyed and with a more receding hairline) simply responds “Sssup?”
“”The Commuter” is a wonderfully bizarre mashup of a driver and his surroundings that borders on some kind of inner city traffic existentialist dread. The driver’s eyes are reflected in the rear view mirror, earbuds block out the urban noise, a coffee cup steams, and another driver peers at his cellphone.
The sidewalk, the traffic cones, the manhole cover and the spewing exhaust are more than his environment. They are one with him.
Banda’s exhibition includes depictions of flaming skulls, loners staring out of windows, monster mob scenes, and a man in a state of despair over dropping an ice cube because all that was left was “the shell of something that had once been chill.”
It also includes a series called “Video Diary,” a grouping of 32 painted VCR tapes of strange figures, wearing shirts with messages on them. One has the head of an orange dinosaur and his jersey says “I will always walk the long way to avoid small talk with a casual acquaintance.”
A bald man with a deep green complexion (and peace sign and smiley faces where his hair should be) is dressed in a shirt noting “Nothing makes me cringe more than thinking about everything I’ve ever said.”
In the end, Banda’s fascinating paintings are about social anxiety and isolation and the awkwardness of navigating a world of monsters, with the full knowledge that you may be one too.
“Joe Banda” is on display at the New Bedford Art Museum, 608 Pleasant St., New Bedford until Sept. 11.