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Review: New work at the Front 

John Isiah Walton, Vanessa R. Centeno, Rosa Byun, Steph Marcus, Sean Starwars and more

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The line between naive folk art and sophisticated expressionism is sometimes very thin, and John Isiah Walton walks it like a tightrope in his Rodeo series at The Front. Based on the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola's annual inmate rodeo, his work conveys the irony of a place where risky spectacles like bull riding provide coveted rewards for good behavior. Such ironies provide fodder for an artist whose loose brushwork is so unbridled it's almost confrontational. It is unclear if that is intentional, but his best work exudes a psychological boldness that is attracting interest in the New York art world and beyond. Sometimes ultraloose brushwork makes me crazy, but he pulls it off in works like 515 (pictured), where a downed rider seems on the verge of being trampled by a bull — a scene that harks to humanity's most ancient memories of dangerous encounters with the animal kingdom. Perhaps because Walton appears to have empathetic chemistry with his subjects, his work has an impact that makes him an emerging artist worth watching.

Vanessa R. Centeno's vibrant mixed- media wall sculptures reflect her unique interpretation of the way colorful consumer items can snag buyers like lures attract fish. Their discarded remnants clog the oceans with trash and induce enough angst to provoke Centeno's inner Mary Shelley to concoct brightly hued constructions with a dark side — not Frankenstein's monster exactly, but definitely weird. Like rumpled canvas shrouds, their unsettling accoutrements soon become evident — for instance, in one work where a kind of dark, sinister snout with teeth surreptitiously protrudes from beneath festive ruffles in a series that alludes to consumer culture as a vast, polymorphous, booby-trapped pinata. In the back gallery, works by Rosa Byun, Steph Marcus and Sean Starwars exude an acerbic pop surreality typified by Marcus' painted cardboard portrait of a well-fed cat in a baseball cap with human legs dangling from its mouth — a fitting talisman for this tumultuous time.

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