By Clay Gentry
When you look at a painting or mural by Mississippi artist Spence Townsend, your senses will be taken on a journey. Oxford residents can experience Townsend’s art through the month of March when it is exhibited at Southside Gallery on the Square.
A special artist’s reception will be held March 1 from 5-8 p.m. at the gallery. Visitors can meet the artist in person.
Gallery Director Wil Cook said the exhibit called “Counterpoint” will include Townsend’s complete body of work. “This is a solo exhibition, so his work will be featured exclusively in the downstairs gallery,” Cook said.
The title “Counterpoint” was chosen by Townsend because it “is a musical term that refers to two voices which are independent in rhythm and yet interdependent in harmony,” the artist said. “This concept encompasses the exhibit in the sense that I am presenting a contrast between narration and abstraction while connecting this dichotomy through color and pattern.”
He said he hopes visitors will make that connection and feel interconnected to the exhibit as a whole. A thread that runs through Townsend’s art is color. Some pieces are just plaids on canvas, while others are jam-packed with whimsical characters and pop and modern pop culture references.
Regardless of the painting one focuses on, it requires a long look to take everything in. Many of Townsend’s paintings give human qualities to animals. Some can be seen watching TV or playing instruments.
Color and whimsy are both important to Townsend because he knows they will engage viewers of his artwork. “I always strive to engage viewers who may not be familiar with fine art or art history,” he said. “I want the work to draw people in with humor and fun.”
In trying to pin down a specific style, Townsend said he believes he is currently in transition.
“For several years in the past, my work was focused on presenting narratives about mundane American life,” he said. “These works often utilized anthropomorphic characters as representations of ordinary people occupying ordinary spaces.”
An example of these anthropomorphic characters include the images he painted in a commissioned oil on canvas piece for the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art called “woodland studio.” In it he depicts a fox playing a violin and a bear playing piano around a wooded pond with an alligator using a welding torch.
These are the pieces that draw viewers in to get a better look because of their sheer peculiarity. However, Townsend said he is now experimenting more with flat pattern and color. “The narrative-driven works have taken a back seat lately to these experiments,” he said.
Much of Townsend’s past work has a fantasy or dreamlike essence. A self-described musician, he implants that reality into his paintings.
“Music is a huge part of my artistic process, and many of my visual art pieces are meant to be experienced alongside songs or ‘soundtracks’ that I have written,” he said. “Often, I am driven to create art, which fits the feeling or mood of the music that I create (and vice versa).”
He has also drawn inspiration from literature for many of his paintings, including the work of J.D. Salinger, David Foster Wallace, and Aesop’s Fables.
“A few years ago, I made a series of works based on J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye,” Townsend said. “I reimagined Holden Caulfield as a cartoon girl cat named Harmony Columbine, and painted her within various scenes from the book.”
Like many artists, Townsend draws inspiration from a variety of sources. Some of his favorite visual artistic styles include contemporary figurative painting, abstract expressionism, classical painting, and printmaking. He said these are just as important to him as works that include illustration, animation and design.
Townsend is looking forward to his time in Oxford and the ability to show his artistic journey in selected pieces that will brighten up the exhibit hall during the dull days of winter.
“The exhibit is really shaping up to be a fun, funky mixtape full of brand new stuff and some old classics,” he said, noting that he will be there to discuss his work with visitors at Southside Gallery during the March 1 reception.
Cook said Townsend was a natural fit as a guest artist because Southside is a gallery that appreciates originality and is constantly seeking the work of unique artists to exhibit.
“One of the goals we have here at Southside is to exhibit artists who are making dynamic work and have an original vision,” Cook said. “Spence’s work fits that description.”
He called Townsend’s paintings expressive and humorous, but also contemplative. “The scope of his work is expansive and exploratory,” Cook said. “He’s an excellent painter, and it’s fun to look at his work. I think our audience will really enjoy it.”
Southside Gallery is located at 150 Courthouse Square in downtown Oxford. It was opened in 1993 and serves as an important part of the city’s arts community.
Townsend, a resident of Greenwood, Mississippi, works as an Assistant Professor of Art at Mississippi Valley State University. He received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in painting and drawing from the University of Southern Mississippi and his master’s of fine arts degree from the University of Georgia, where he was a graduate instructor.