By Katie Scarvey
On the wall of Frank Selby’s studio is a pair of wings. They were his grandfather’s, he says, awarded after he survived a plane crash.
A disaster ó averted.
As an artist, Frank Selby is fascinated by disaster in its myriad forms. His meticulously rendered drawings feature dead bodies, war-torn landscapes, smashed buildings ó the after-effects of disaster, both natural and manmade.
Still, he doesn’t go for harrowing, stomach-churning imagery. His pieces often feel peaceful.
But chaos lurks.
On a February morning, Louise the cat leaps onto Selby’s studio desk, and pads around, only inches away from a drawing that Selby has spent several weeks on.
Instead of shooing her out, he flirts with disaster, simply watching her out of the corner of his eye, gently diverting her if she gets too close.
Here, within these flowered studio walls, Louise is unaware of the dark images swirling in the head of her owner.
The real subject is absent in his work, Selby says. In a drawing of a smashed building for example, the actual subject is not the building but the earthquake that has transformed it. The trauma, the calamity, exist beyond the realm of the piece but loom large in the viewer’s awareness.
Selby isn’t sure about the genesis of his fascination for disaster. He allows that it might have something to do with growing up in New Mexico near the Anasazi ruins and working at Aztec Ruins National Monument during the summers.
Selby, 32, says that since junior high school, his material has always been concerned with dark themes. He liked horror films and as a teenager remembers being attracted to films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Blue Velvet.” He liked heavy metal and continues to be fascinated by it. He says a certain nihilism defines his generation, which tends to favor “goth, emo imagery.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that when Selby moved to Salisbury several years ago, the Civil War ó a national disaster of epic proportions ó would enter his consciousness in a new way. He realized that here, in the South, the war “still exists.”
The reality of the war as a lingering presence perhaps prompted the theme of Selby’s new exhibit, “We weren’t never here,” which will open March 29 at Museum 52, 95 Rivington Street in New York City.
Selby explains: “‘We weren’t never here’ refers to the absence that I’m pointing to in the work included in the show, both the absence of the ‘actual’ Civil War in any of the photographs and also the absence that’s implied in the mirror images” that run through the work.
He often uses a photograph as a point of departure.
The technique Selby uses to produce his detailed drawings ó which look so real they are often mistaken for photographs ó is incredibly painstaking. While a particular disaster might have unfolded in a few violent, cataclysmic moments, Selby will reflect on it through his art with a studied deliberation that might require weeks. To cover two square inches of paper might take him a day of working with a pencil that needs almost constant honing.”I sharpen it like a harpoon,” he says.
Selby, who has studied photographs from the Civil War era, says almost no pictures of the actual war exist.
“All the images are really peripheral,” he says. Only one or two depict an actual battle taking place, and in those, it’s difficult to see what’s going on.
One of the pieces is based on a photo of two figures on a hill. Because the exposure time was so long, two of the figures in the foreground were there for the start of the exposure but not the end.
Selby poses the question: What are they looking at?
“It’s impossible to tell what, where, when, why from that picture,” he notes. “All you can see is guys looking down into a valley, and this is the nature of most of the Civil War photography.”
Alexander Gardner, one of the photographers of the period, became somewhat infamous for a pair of photographs he shot at Gettysburg. The same dead soldier appears in two of his images, but in the second photograph, the body has clearly been dragged to a different location. At least one of the photos, then, is staged. Intrigued by the questions this raises about the “slipperiness” of historical images, Selby chose these photographs as subjects for paintings.
Another series of Selby’s is called “Small Disasters.” These are tiny, two-square-inch (or smaller) drawings of incredible detail.
Selby is always conscious of the viewer’s physical relationship to his art. “With the big ones, you have to back up,” he says. “With the tiny ones, you put your nose to the glass.”
Viewers cannot approach a tiny drawing in the regular way, he says, which calls their process of interpretation into question and allows them to become conscious of how they process the image.
For a visual artist, Selby is surprisingly articulate about his approach, without projecting an “I take myself way too seriously” vibe.
“In graduate school, they teach you to think things to death,” Selby says. “You can think so hard about your work that you can’t tie your shoes.”
The typical exhibit-goer, he says, doesn’t “have world enough or time to think about the work the way the artist does.”
Selby is intensely dedicated to his work.
“I work all day, every day,” he says. “I never leave this room ó it’s kind of sad.”
Selby was born in Palm Springs, Calif., and grew up in New Mexico. He went to college at the University of New Mexico, where he received a fine arts degree.
After graduating, he worked in Los Angeles for five or six years, “trying to make my way,” he says. He worked on films and advertisements, often on sets. He also ran an art gallery and exhibited his own work, but at some point he realized that getting a master’s degree was important.
He left L.A. in 2003 to go back to school in London, at the Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design.
There he met Jenny Gardner of Salisbury, an artist who was earning the same degree. He and Gardner have been together for more than four years and consider themselves life partners as well as colleagues.
Selby says that Gardner always “gets” his art, and that she’s always honest. “I can count on her to say if it’s not working,” he says. “And if she gives me a compliment, I know she’s not flattering me. Hopefully, I do the same for her.”
For the past year, Selby has been pursuing his art full-time. Selby has exhibited internationally, in England, Italy and Spain. He’s had exhibitions in Miami, Los Angeles and New York City and has done a five-week residency in Portugal.
Selby’s art, which ranges in price from $2,000 to $12,000, is available exclusively through Museum 52, which has galleries in New York and London. For more information, go to www.museum52.com.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or email@example.com.
By Katie Scarvey