- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

Visitors to the David Adamson Gallery enter the macabre fantasy world of Kelly Towles’ “Underdog” — an exhibit that reveals Mr. Towles as one of the most original art talents in town.

Considering the implications of the word “underdog,” the title inevitably provokes questions.

Who is the “underdog”? Are the distorted paintings and digital-pigment computer prints of down-and-out men with peg legs and broken buck teeth alter egos of the artist? What do their missing body limbs imply? Are their attached red boxing gloves instruments of violence? And what is the meaning of the downtrodden birds?

Although viewers may not immediately guess the implications of these personal symbols, they intuitively recognize the rage and black humor expressed through them. The digital print titled “On Top of the Fallen,” one of the exhibit’s most gruesome, shows an idiotic-looking peg-legged man jumping on a fallen bird.

Intimations of violence are introduced, as well, through a Soviet Red Army soldier cradling a flamethrower in “Ignite the Igniter” and a frustrated man firing a revolver in “These Days Are Better.”

Mr. Towles, 28, describes the flamethrower’s threat: “The man operating the flamethrower has to ignite it by pulling a trigger that shoots out gas — and he’s about ready to do this. So watch out.”

Usually critics place the artist in a street-graffiti-comic-book-pop-art box, but his work is much more inventive than that suggests.

Commenting on his art during an interview at the Gallery, he identifies himself as the “underdog.” “It symbolizes where I’ve come from and what I’m overcoming,” says the tall, black-haired artist with just a wisp of a beard.

His “where” was a childhood of hardship and insecurity. Mr. Towles describes himself as an “Air Force brat” with the family moving frequently — and his father deserting his mother, two brothers and himself almost as often. After the last, permanent break, his mother got a job at the University of Maryland in College Park to make her sons’ bachelor’s degrees possible.

“I’m still trying to understand why he left,” the artist says, and his use of quasi-humorous, tragic symbols seems to sum up his attempts at understanding. For example, the legless men are powerless because they’ve lost important physical strengths, boxing gloves stand for life’s struggles, and birds symbolize the high goals for which people strive.

Just as Mr. Towles’ imagery is individual, so, also, is his use of scale and technique. In response to Laurie and David Adamson’s invitation to expand his digital-pigment images to the gallery’s surrounding walls, he enlarged the peg-legged men to mural-size proportions. They’re strangely reminiscent of Francisco de Goya’s darkly drawn “Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”prints.

Though it’s obvious that Mr. Towles doesn’t make pretty pictures, his ability to express tortured anguish and prolonged sadness makes his art profoundly moving and special.

WHAT: “Underdog”

WHERE: David Adamson Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Through Jan. 29.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/628-0257 or www.adamsoneditions.com

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