John Lytle Wilson, originally from Rock Hill, South Carolina, a small city just south of Charlotte, moved to the Magic City with the hope of following his passion: visual art.
Wilson, now known for colorfully juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane, graduated from Birmingham-Southern with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1999. After graduating, Wilson hung around for another year, until his then girlfriend, whom he now proudly calls his wife, also completed her studies. Following her graduation, the two embarked on a journey that would forever change Wilson’s perceptions and artistic ambitions.
For one fruitful year, he and his wife lived in China, a section of the world that was not altogether strange to Wilson. When he was a child, Wilson’s father accepted a position teaching political science, which required that he and his family move to China. During his time spent there as a youngster, Wilson became interested in a children’s literature series entitled The Monkey King — based on the great classical Chinese novel Journey to the West — “which tells a story of a monkey king, a sort of magical monkey, who is tasked with escorting a Buddhist priest from China to India to fetch the true Buddhist scriptures,” Wilson recalls. This series, Wilson believes, was the crux of his interest in art.
“I loved those books,” he says. “The illustrations were really interesting, and that is probably the genesis of my monkey obsession.”
Wilson says of his interest in art as a young boy, “I’m not sure I was good at it, yet; but I was drawn toward it.” In seventh grade, he began attending a summer art program called ‘Starts’ for artistically inclined children, and in high school, attended South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts. “I wasn’t bad in school, but I wasn’t great in it either; so, [art] was kind of what I was good at,” says Wilson.
Upon his return from China in 2001, Wilson attended graduate school at Florida State, and after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts with a concentration in studio art, he decided to stay at FSU as a professor before he and his wife returned to Birmingham in 2008.
Wilson now works mostly out of his home studio, hanging canvases on a wall lined with nails, allowing him to reach all sides of his sometimes nearly eight-foot-tall paintings. Having previously worked with mostly oil paints, Wilson has since transitioned to working solely with acrylic paints, which can be a much more time-consuming task, requiring many layers of paint to achieve the vibrant, opaque colors found in his paintings.
“When I was at Birmingham-Southern, I was painting large oil paintings that were kind of expressionistic and were dark and looming, because I thought that’s what you had to do; I thought that’s what art was supposed to look like,” says Wilson. “But even then I was doodling these monkeys. They didn’t look like they look now; they’ve changed a lot, but…at some point it clicked. At some point between undergrad and graduate school…the doodles became elevated and became the focus of the work.” Although Wilson had already conceived of the idea, the robots weren’t added until after his graduate school thesis show in the spring of 2004. For a while, Wilson painted a separate series of robots before eventually deciding to incorporate them into the monkey paintings.
The two forms of life most prevalent in his paintings, Wilson believes, represent a model of “an organic and technological or ancient and modern” symbiotic relationship. Wilson also suggests that certain aspects of his famous monkey and robot paintings represent Freud’s theory of the “id” and the “superego;” although humans, which potentially represent the balancing “ego,” have altogether been removed from the equation. The absence of humans from Wilson’s work allows the evolutionary ancestor and the technological brainchild of the human race to peacefully coexist. As fascinating as this idea is, however, it is only that; Wilson normally prefers to leave his work open to viewer interpretation.
Wilson’s most recent show, The Shrine of the Most Glorious Future, which is currently being housed at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery, tells the story of an awe-inspiring myth which serves as the basis for a subsequent cultic uprising of followers of the “Future.” The display includes paintings titled Monkeys Riding the Tigers of Heaven, Now They Have Guns and The Gift of the Unicorn. Standing impressively in the rear open space of the gallery is the shrine — a large-scale sculpture and digital media display of none other than the cult leader himself. Looping video clips, tinted in various colors, are set to a soundtrack of the slightly eerie (but not unpleasant) sound of chirping birds.
Amongst his other work, Wilson has created a series of pieces he calls “corrected paintings.” The original paintings he uses are found at local flea markets and thrift stores — usually of landscapes — and are improved, or corrected, with the addition of one or more of Wilson’s mystical characters. However, make no mistake; the seemingly violent, laser-shooting robots and mischievous monkeys of these paintings claim no relation to the subdued, peaceful creatures of the Shrine exhibit.
Although his style and subject matter are somewhat unconventional, and despite misguided interpretations of his paintings and difficulties of the trade that all artists must face at some point or another, Wilson’s artwork continues to capture imaginations around our community.
The Shrine of the Most Glorious Future is free to the public and the UAB Visual Arts Gallery is open for visitors Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday from 12-4 p.m. All of Wilson’s paintings are priced to sell.