The demented, whimsical world of artist Frank Lawson

Andy Downing
Frank Lawson, left, and Kent Grosswiler photographed outside of Streetlight Guild

Half of the fun of touring “Two Peas,”a collaborative exhibit between artists and friends Frank Lawson and Kent Grosswiler that opens virtually at Streetlight Guild on Thursday, Oct. 1, should be trying to discern which pieces are embedded with social commentary and which are simply the imaginative product of two similarly twisted imaginations.

Lawson described one portrait of Ronald Reagandone by Grosswiler in which the ex-president is depicted with a black eye, a crack pipe pursed between his lips — a not-so-subtle commentary on the failed drug wars of the 1980s.

A painting done by Lawson is similarly subversive, centered on a female Ronald McDonald character whom Lawson dubbed “Donna McRonald.” In the piece, McRonald is shown breastfeeding a rapper character vaguely reminiscent of Tekashi 6ix9ine from cheeseburger-shaped nipples, a scene the artist described as a commentary on the superficial nature of some modern rap. “And just a couple weeks ago, Travis Scott sold his name to be put on a cheeseburger,” said Lawson, whose painting predatedthe recent McDonald’s collaboration. “Without giving too much away, it’s about consumerism and how disposable music, and hip-hop, is. … I’m prophetic on that!”

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The artist described other inclusions as “utter nonsense,” though, such as a painting that incorporates a mermaid, serial killer Ted Bundy and meme-able cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.

“I feel like me being in the game, me being an artist is a political thing. So I might have some political commentary  it’s not ham-fisted or anything  but it’s there. And the same thing with Kent, so we’re going to say what we’re going to say,” said Lawson. “At the same time, he’s got a crazy personality and a funny sense of humor, and I like to think I’m funny. … So I feel like [this show] is all over the place, to where I was like, ‘Are these all going to go together?’ But there is a connection [between the works], a vibe that’s all demented but whimsical.”

Lawson said the two artists met three or four years ago and became fast friends, owing to a similar sense of humor that regularly bleeds into each artist’s respective work. Lawson said he was particularly drawn to the early portraits Grosswiler painted of Columbus hip-hop luminaries such asCamu Tao andDominique LaRue, a scene with which Lawson was intimately familiar owing to both his own musical forays, as well as those of his brother,the rapper Metro, who teamed with the late Tao in the hip-hop duo S.A. Smash. “So I come to find out we have mutual people, and he was on the scene when I was on the scene, but I never met him back in the day,” Lawson said.

Almost immediately after connecting, the two hatched a plan for a duo show, and Lawson said that “Two Peas” is the culmination of nearly two years of work, which, up until COVID hit, consisted of painting get-togethers nearly every week. “We were consistent, and we just started grinding,” Lawson said. “And the beauty of it was there were no rules. One thing we agreed on without ever having to agree on it was, ‘Let’s do whatever.’ … We were making pop culture references and things that were personal to us and then mashing it together [into] this hodgepodge, just snowballing, one thing leading to another.”

In addition to simply enjoying both one another's company and the process, Lawson said the collaboration has also been instructive, particularly in regards to the more business-oriented aspects of the art trade that he’s absorbed from Grosswiler. (“He’s at a point [in his career] where he can give a number and people pay it without flinching,” Lawson said.) 

Lawson, born and raised on the South Side, traced his childhood interest in art to his father, an Army veteran who died when the artist was 11 (the family still has a book of sketches completed by Lawson's father during the years he served in Vietnam). Beginning as a kid, Lawson would draw the Warner Brothers cartoon characters he watched on TV, in addition to his own wild creations, which remain a hallmark of his current work, on viewhere via the artist’s Instagram page. Beginning in October, Lawson will also take over thePOCtober Instagram account with the blessing of artist Reaghan the Savage, on which he’ll post a different Black musician reimagined as a monster each day of the month. 

Despite these early forays into the trade, though, Lawson said it wasn’t until he began attending school at CCAD in more recent years that he finally felt comfortable referring to himself as an artist. 

“It took a long time to call myself an artist, having put my time and money in at CCAD,” said Lawson, who has since graduated and described his time in school as having equipped him with a metaphorical milk crate on which to stand. “So now I can see over the fence, like, ‘Wow, there’s a whole lot more possibility out here.’”