If you ask Birmingham artist John Lytle Wilson, no painting is complete without giant robots, unicorns, and a few playful purple monkeys. It’s an idea that appears often in his work, notably in his Corrected Painting series in which he inserts his animated characters into existing traditional landscape paintings.
This summer, the Museum asked Wilson to step outside his comfort zone by inviting him to create a large-scale mural featuring a fictional landscape of his own design during the June 8 Art On The Rocks event. His sketch became a live paint-by numbers experience for guests as they picked up paint brushes and completed the mural alongside the artist.
For the work, Wilson drew on imagery from his childhood, largely influenced by time spent in front of televisions in the 1980s. He also referenced a number of works on view in the BMA collection, including a mountain range reminiscent of Looking Down Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt, and a monkey mimicking Aurora as depicted by the French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau in L’Aurore (Dawn).
The dazzling result was a panoramic, colorful landscape Wilson titled Return to Unicorn Island and it quickly became a favorite photo opportunity among instagramming Museum goers, summer campers, and BMA staff alike. While it was still on view, we sat down with the artist to discuss the unconventional experience, the inspiration behind his work, and, well, robots.
BMA: What was it like to have other people work on your mural alongside of you?
John Lytle Wilson: When I was imagining how the mural would go, I kind of thought I would be working on it and a few people would be brave and jump in and help and that we might get an audience of people watching, but I didn’t really envision the shoulder-to-shoulder enthusiasm that happened. To see the reachable portions of the mural just sort of appear over the course of a couple of hours was a lot of fun.
BMA: What was the most difficult part of this project?
JLW: When you’re working on a mural this size, use of linear perspective changes a little bit because the shapes are dealing with themselves taking on perspective, and so trying to get the perspective down for some of the larger parts of the robot was tricky.
BMA: Does this mural connect to other paintings in the BMA’s collection?
JLW: There are some subtle instances of borrowing that happened, but I’ll leave those to the viewer to try to locate.
BMA: What do you hope Museum visitors took away from this work?
JLW: All of my work hopefully has a couple of different levels. I love playing with color. I think that there was a time in my artistic development that if I could’ve gotten away with just doing big blobs of red and green and purple and magenta that I might have done that. Instead, those blobs have taken the form of monkeys and flowers and unicorns. I like for the work to be fun, but I also really like playing with color, playing with depth, and composition. Hopefully there’s also some kind of structure or narrative or at least the beginnings of one to sort of engage the viewer and get them to ask, “what’s going on?” Sometimes I have an answer to that built in, but other times it’s left a little more open ended.
BMA: Are these robots friendly?
JLW: That’s a good question. In some of my work, there are definite explosions and fire and things of that nature, but these I generally think of as the calmer, kinder robots. I’m pretty sure that the beams of light have different settings, so nothing is being destroyed yet.
BMA: Who controls them?
JLW: The robots control the robots … or the artist controls the robots.