Recent UAA computer science graduate Levi Oyster, wants people to not only take a hard look at the state of America today, but to do something about it. His show “Vibrant Violence,” currently showing at UAA’s Hugh McPeck Gallery, intends to inspire conversations about subjects we would rather avoid.
Oyster’s oil on canvas pieces pop with colors that are at times borderline psychedelic. The subject matter, though, delves into darker territory. The topics range from waterboarding to improvised explosive devices to reactions of the Edward Snowden leaks.
One piece, titled “Johnny Terrorseed: Drones,” was inspired by America’s extensive use of drone strikes and how this method of warfare has become the new normal. Oyster wants to show the idea that the country is fueling a cycle of violence by causing those affected by drone strikes to take up arms against the U.S.
The painting shows a tree comprising what could be skulls or screaming faces in its bark, rising from an acid green cloud. In the tree’s branches hang explosive suicide vests and weapons like AK-47s and grenade launchers.
Oyster served six years in the Alaska Air National Guard and said some of his views about the subjects of his art go against the mainstream opinion in the Armed Forces.
“A lot of these topics are a little hush hush or a little — it’s the dissenting view, so you get a lot of clap back when you try and bring stuff up about this,” Oyster said.
When he was serving in the Guard, Oyster was part of an air crew on a C-130, the workhorse of military aircraft. His team’s job was to get supplies, troops and weapons to where they needed to go. During his six years in the Guard, Oyster was deployed overseas twice, once to Afghanistan and once to Kuwait.
It was during these deployments that Oyster began questioning his role in the violence of America’s military action. He would wonder who would die as a result of the troops or bombs he was helping transport.
“I had joined because I wanted to make a difference and try and help out,” Oyster said. “And as I deployed, I realized I was — I didn’t really feel like I was helping out. Every now and again you’d do something really meaningful, but a lot of the times, you felt like you were adding to the violence.”
Oyster has been drawing since he was a child, but during his time in the military, he started to take his art more seriously. He’s never taken an art class, but taught himself to paint by studying art magazines, books and going to museums.
“[I’d] just stare and stare and pick up their techniques; see where they’re creating shadows, where they’re adding value,” Oyster said.
He started off painting for fun, but as he started to research how the U.S. was treating detainees and the civilian deaths caused by military action, Oyster wanted to examine the “jingoistic revenge culture” that seemed to be present in America.
“To deal with how I was feeling about it, I just decided to use art as my outlet,” Oyster said.
By using exaggerated colors that explode off the canvas, Oyster gives the viewer a sugarcoating which helps the bitter content go down smoothly. He’s influenced by socially conscious musicians and artists like Shepard Fairey, who manage to make questioning the status quo part of the mainstream.
“I wanted these horrible things to be more consumable so that people can actually start thinking about them instead of just blocking them out and turning off the news,” Oyster said.
On June 2, Oyster hosted a First Friday reception for “Vibrant Violence.” Recent UAA graduate Michael Notti has known Oyster for years and was there to show his support.
“I think it’s always important to have a broad spectrum of ideas and views of the world,” Notti said. “And especially if some of the main ideas are fueled by extreme passion — that’s when it’s most important to have a dissenting opinion and that’s what I believe this artwork is in a sense. It goes against the mainstream.”
Oyster doesn’t think the situation is hopeless. He’s seen how people around the country have been taking a more active approach in their local politics and how that can make all the difference.
“Taking ownership at the individual level is, I think, what’s most important and I think that will overcome a lot of these awful things,” Oyster said.
“Vibrant Violence” closes on Wednesday, but Oyster’s work can be found at facebook.com/levioysterart.