Dreams in black and white

Artist James Langlois prefers fantasy and surrealism over seascapes.

—MJ Bruder Munafo

The current exhibit at the Playhouse Art Space at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse features a selection that is very different from the typical Vineyard tourist fare. For one thing, all of the pieces by featured artist James Langlois are in black and white. And second, the tone of many of the drawings is dark and often fantastical and/or allegorical.

“I prefer to do surrealism, magical realism, fantasy realism, rather than landscapes or seascapes,” says Mr. Langlois.

Although the show includes a number of lovely landscapes and seascapes and a couple of portraits, the most eye-catching pieces are of a darker nature.

The show is titled “Mostly Black and White,” and the image on the poster gives a good indication of the predominant theme of the selections. The graphite-on-paper image, “Plague Doctor,” is based on drawings from the 17th and 18th century. Doctors treated plague victims while wearing a special protective suit that included a beak-like mask that was filled with herbs believed to protect against disease.

Mr. Langlois uses the image to refer to the current plague of opiate addiction, an issue that has a personal reference for him. A dozen years ago he was prescribed opiate painkillers, and then became addicted. “The drugs dictated what I was doing, where I could go. They consumed my life,” says Mr. Langlois. “I was on opiates for four and a half years, because it was very hard to get off. I was mad about the whole issue.”

Two other drawings in the show comment on the prescription opiate epidemic. They are titled “Pushing Pharma,” 1 and 2, and depict doctors in surgical masks with images of pill bottles, skulls, screaming faces, and dollar bills. While the portraits are executed skillfully in photorealism, the gruesome figures at the bottom of the pieces are done in an allegorical style, which is a trademark of the artist’s work.

Two other pieces are good examples of the latter. One, titled “Tombstone Blues,” features a

grouping of mysterious figures, including a few Arabs in traditional garb. The drawing comments in part on the relationship between the Saudi royal family and the Bush extended political family.

The picture, rich in symbolism, also includes images of a three-faced man, a fortune teller, a red-tailed hawk, a martini glass, a scroll, some books, and a man in the distance walking over a bridge. As with many of Mr. Langlois’ drawings, the images come from the subconscious.

“They are all symbolic of what was going on at the time in the dream state,” says the artist. “I use something that you can identify, even though the way it’s set up in the picture is abstract. Each drawing grows organically. I might start off with one figure that then leads to another form. That’s how dreams work. I have an original idea, and a lot of time it will get sidetracked.”

In the artist’s statement that accompanies the exhibit, Mr. Langlois describes another charcoal drawing, “Days of Wine and Roses,” which features a number of figures spilling out of a martini glass: “This piece visualizes the chaos of alcohol and drug addiction.”

Mr. Langlois’ work follows in the tradition of allegorical artists from Hieronymus Bosch to contemporary artists working in this genre. He mentions a few artists who have influenced his work, including his former teacher, Steven Warren Curtis.

The lifelong artist has exhibited his work on-Island at the Granary Gallery and A Gallery, and in the Boston area at the Copley Society, the Boston Public Library, and the Wiggins Gallery. He has been interested in the media of drawing — using both charcoal and graphite pencil — since he was a child. Mr. Langlois recalls having a fascination with art and artists since he was a preschooler.

“I remember from the time I was about 3 years old, my father used to take us to the library in Pawtucket,” he says. “I would go to the art book section and take out art books even though I couldn’t read at the time. By the time I was in high school I could identify all of these different paintings and artists. I’ve always been interested in art and artists. I’ve always, always drawn.”

About 14 years ago, Mr. Langlois moved from New Hampshire to the Vineyard. He currently shares a home with artist Wendy Weldon. They each have their own studio in the house in Chilmark.

Although he also paints and does portraiture work, Mr. Langlois’ current direction is more fantasy and allegorical work.

“My technique asks the audience to stop and examine the detail,” he writes in his artist’s statement. “I want the viewers to immerse themselves in the work and observe how the images relate to each other. In doing so the work becomes mentally a part of them. The viewers take away an image, a snapshot of the dream. The dream becomes theirs. It is no longer mine.”