When artists speak about influence, it often alludes to the positive forces that have compelled their work. Other artists, experiences or stories, perhaps. For the three artists showing currently at Modern Arts Midtown—James Freeman, Brent Witters and Troy Muller—influence becomes an aspect of the work itself.

Their work is diverse in technique, medium and inception but these three artists have elicited a conversation about the historical, scientific, personal and political implications of influence.

James Freeman’s “Ship of Fools” jumps off the wall as illustrative plates from a vintage children’s storybook. The rich, deep color from the pastels keeps the figures simple enough to evoke a characterization but the details in the feathers, wisps of hair and wood grain of the boat lend a sophisticated study that the characters have a much deeper story.

When looking at the work, I felt a sense of repetition—the characters had very similar poses—that reminded me of prints taken from a woodcut. It was not a surprise, then, as I turned to the next wall and saw woodcut prints as well. The colorful storyboard with a loudmouth rooster and pensive owl leap from a folksy realism to a surrealist allegory. There is starkness in the background of these characters, with figures evolving into Cubist and Dada fantasies.

This is not a coincidence, as Freeman explains that Pablo Picasso was the inspiration for the series. Picasso is the fool and considered to be a bit of a jerk. He only peaks into the pieces he is in, but it is enough of a presence that the rooster is compelled to sound off. Picasso is enough of an influence that other animals and people who come in and out are dismissed or expelled. This influence compels others seeking approval to shift on others.

As many of us vividly recall storybooks from our childhood with great sentimentality and as self-identifiers, the familiarity of the illustrative-like quality reinforces the absolute truth we latch onto at a time when we are so easily influenced. It’s hard to shake the indelible stories we are told-particularly when they are told by those who hold positions of authority or reverence-whether as children or as equally impressionable adults.

Brent Witters’ art tackles influence from a chemical standpoint. His abstract series of squares uses a variety of medium, shape, color and texture to illustrate the result of reactions from different sources. He refers to Morphogenesis, the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape.

While it is used in a purely scientific way, I can’t help but find that definition equally relevant to the way people develop themselves. Witters’ materials come to him as discards from others and the bubbling and cracking that results from their combination is equally outside of his personal choice. Where he does exert his own direct influence are the man-made strips of various matter that seem to halt the natural activity of the materials. A barrier is created that either halts the process, hides it or amplifies it.

Troy Muller finds that the biggest influence on our behavior today is our own anthropological history and its artifacts. His paintings, sculptures and hybrids of the two deliver familiar objects and symbols that tell the stories of our past, our present interaction and the future.

Centered primarily around board games, the nostalgic comfort similar to storybooks pulls in the viewer to a familiar setting. The game of Operation or Chutes and Ladders takes our rainy-day activity into a reflection of the people we’ve become. A cell phone replaces the charley horse as a literal part of our body and directives like ‘run’ or ‘pray’ replace the good kid/bad kid scenarios from these classic games.

That these objects—the games themselves and the symbols that we so clearly recognize—propel an automatic response is a testament to the influence that the human history, popular culture and the common rhetoric we share shapes us so much.

Iconography has always had a strong influence in our history. Church panels make up whole centuries of our cultural history, the religious narratives made so vivid to connect with the masses. Muller’s “Marriage Game” recognizes the impact of this powerful process of messaging.

Framed in Gothic panels, a couple is surrounded by symbols that tell the story of these iconic characters. Much like the halo, saints and cherubs boost the universal image of Mary and Jesus, a perfectly cooked steak is juxtaposed with unpaid bills—painting the picture of marital reality.

When the story we have been told about marriage from the white picket fence to the 2.5 children, we have been influenced by a cultural symbol that shames us for our reality. As we look to the future, are we going to continue a narrative that distracts from reality? How will these symbols evolve in our stories?

In each of these exhibit series, there seems to be a line where influence can start positive and turn negative. Today, we reconsider our geniuses when they are found to be monsters. We are tearing down constructs that come from words and symbols that don’t reflect us.

As we view the work of Freeman, Witters and Muller, we more critically examine when colliding forces have dangerous effects. This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy nostalgia, traditions and our comforts but it does mean that we should be more aware of the influence they have on us and how they compel us to see each other and ourselves.

The art of James Freeman, Brent Witters and Troy Muller is on display through December 29 at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge Street. For more information, visit modernartsmidtown.com.

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