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Frozen Fairy Tales : Artist Timothy Oates Turns His Fantasies Into Cutout Paintings and Furniture

June 01, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Some people take their fantasies to a psychoanalyst. Timothy Oates took his to the marketplace. The main products of his San Francisco studio are "dummy boards," the traditional name for figures and torsos cut out of flat board and painted. In the 18th Century such figures were used to populate the cavernous rooms of stately homes, or sometimes as fireguards to protect delicate complexions from the heat of fires in big, open grates.

Oates' dummy boards have one not-so-traditional addition: touches of the third dimension. A board of a lady--with her hair in a chignon and her body in a low-cut, painted-on ball gown--is wrapped in a real purple-velvet stole that folds around her waist to form part of the base. And she holds a posy of real flowers. Figures of carousing youths (made by Oates for a party from a Caravaggio painting) hold baskets containing fruit, half of which is painted, half real. A gentleman with a cockaded hat wears an apron to hold bottles of wine; he is literally a dumb waiter. A French Revolution citoyenne in a Phrygian cap has a sort of kangaroo pouch of cloth to hold long French loaves. Oates says of another comely girl, who is sitting on a trompe l'oeil wall: "The only thing real is her hankie."

Oates' latest and most endearing work is children's furniture in the form of seated bunnies and mice. The children sit, as it were, in the animals' laps. A set of mouse chairs has a table painted to look like succulent Gruyere cheese. One of the rabbits, very smartly dressed in white buttoned leggings and with a natty carrot in his vest pocket, looks as if he might be intended as the White Rabbit in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"; but he is not. He is pure Timothy Oates. "To use Lewis Carroll would be almost like stealing," Oates says.

Oates enjoys watching children respond to the furniture. "They love it. When we'd just finished the mice furniture, I had it in the studio, and a friend brought her little girl over. She'd just turned 4, and children of that age, whenever they come into a new space, are always sort of put off. They're not quite sure of where they can go or what they can do. And she was like that--until she saw the mice. Then, instantly, she clicked into this other world and started playing with them. It was just fascinating to see how she responded. It was like, 'OK, you adults, go ahead, do whatever you're going to do; I don't care, I've found my friends.' "

Oates' own childhood was spent in Kings Mountain, N.C., and (during summer) at Myrtle Beach, S.C., where his mother owned a small motel. As a child he was more interested in dancing than in art, but he became a fine-arts major at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., "which is kind of a nice place. It's a community so removed from everything that the students are able to pursue what they want to do without succumbing to outside influences." Then he was apprenticed to Samuel Adler, a Cubist painter in New York City--"work very different from what I'm doing now."

Oates became disillusioned with the New York art world. "I felt that there were particular styles that were to be followed by everyone, and that if you did not conform to those styles, you were out. At that point, minimalism was of the leading styles. And I am a maximalist." So he "took a sidestep" and moved to San Francisco, where he became a window designer and display director for a number of stores. Three years ago he stopped doing display work to open his own studio, with two assistants. He continued to design window props, the kind of things he had been making for the stores he had worked for, the last of which was Neiman-Marcus. But he also gained new clients: caterers who wanted props for showing food, decorators who wanted them for interiors, and private individuals who wanted portrait dummy boards of themselves and their families. Oates will make you a set of dining-room chairs painted to resemble members of your household. In the Los Angeles area, his work is on sale at Gump's, Beverly Hills; he is also represented by Clifford Stephens, 114 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles.

Becoming his own master gave Oates the freedom to indulge his fantasies to the full. "I guess I'm basically a romantic," he says. "I'm creating my own fairy tales by making all the persons who would be involved in some abstract, dreamlike story--Prince and Princess Charming . . . and the animals. I create the characters, and then whoever is viewing them has to figure out what's going on. It's very much 'witching hour' stuff. You're never sure when a change is going to happen or what it's going to be."

Oates' work demands a kind of "audience participation." "The very fact that most of the pieces hold things involves the patrons in the final visual effect. Our pieces play visual games: For example, which parts are two-dimensional, which three-dimensional? Dummy boards--being functional, free-standing paintings--demand a doubletake."

Oates has no ambitions to have his works treated as "sculptures" and shown in art galleries. He had his basin-full of the art world in his apprentice days. "I still have a very negative taste in my mouth. I think my technique is as good as that of any painter I know, but I use it to make something to which people respond in a positive way. When I have painted portrait pieces, it is fascinating to see the subjects playing with those images of themselves, like children with dolls."

One ambition he does have is to do work for movie studios. One can envision a Steven Spielberg film being built around some of his dummy-board fantasies. "What I did in window display was to imagine a drama going on and to catch it at some frozen moment," Oates says. "It would be fabulous to have real actors moving through my scenes: It would be almost a 'Twilight Zone' thing, where this one person is alive and everyone else is frozen."

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