For many in and around Buffalo's art community, Tom Holt's reputation has long been tied up with graffiti.
In years long past, Holt, now 31, was a fairly active member of the city's on-again, off-again graffiti scene, spraying his cartoonish characters and tags onto highway on-ramps and other publicly owned structures.
Though he's mostly retired from that scene, you can see Holt's graffiti work right now on the side of 224 Allen St. in a manic, multihued mural he recently completed with help from an Erie, Pa.-based graffiti artist. But it's his paintings and drawings that have been occupying much of Holt's time and energy lately, and many of them are collected in the compact exhibition "Presto!" on view in Studio Hart through Sept. 1.
The show includes a few dozen paintings and drawings along with several of Holt's sketchbooks. Holt's work in this show, illustrative and happily rough around the edges, draws from a stew of influences: comic books, B-movies, video games, pop culture, nature, other graffiti and, lastly if at all, the art world. His finished drawings can include a strange jumble of all these things, and he strives to make each piece a self-contained narrative.
One framed picture, for example, depicts a little green house floating on top of a paper airplane folded in such a way that it could never actually fly. On the opposite side of the fold is a red "X," which Holt explained is meant to represent the place where his girlfriend is moving shortly to go to school. Under the drawing is the simple cursive phrase "far enough."
The piece, like many of Holt's best, is melancholic without being overbearing, beautiful without sacrificing its strangeness, and elevated by a hint of the juvenile or mischievous.
Holt's drawings can also be violent and grotesque when he wants them to be, such as one self-portrait in his sketchbook that shows the artist, spray-paint can in hand, being attacked by a bloodthirsty, three-headed beast attached to his back.
The best drawings are usually the simplest ones. A sketch of two boats sitting side by side and captioned "reduce, reuse, recycle," is one, as is a piece with the words "and then, for no particular reason, everything went back to normal" written in grade-school cursive then partially erased and rewritten.
Holt's migration to drawing as his happy medium, he said, was prompted by a college painting professor who disabused him of his youthful notion that painting had to be the goal of a serious artist. Since then, he's been marking down his daily thoughts and preoccupations in sketchbooks, which contain warm-ups and fragments along with fully realized drawings.
Those sketchbooks really serve as the meat of the exhibition. They're a compendium of Holt's preoccupations, his dreams and nightmares and some personal details of his life that many artists would be loath to reveal to the public.
But Holt has no compunction in baring his soul to gallerygoers largely unedited, an act of bravery but also of uncertainty: If I show them everything, they've gotta like something. And that approach pans out, because there's an awful lot here to like.
Looking at the entire body of work Holt presents in this show, you can see a fascinating iconography emerging. He is fond of certain symbols -- the egg, the skull, the uninhabited boat -- which he's developed in the sketchbooks and inserted into his later work. Each leitmotif stands for something simple. The egg represents comfort and safety, the empty boat is an individual body apt to drift away and the skull is a stand-in for mortality.
In his best work, Holt employs these symbols subtly and poetically. Other attempts miss the mark. But in sum, this exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into the work and working process of one of this region's most imaginative artists.
"Presto! Recent Work by Tom Holt"
WHEN: Through Sept. 1
WHERE: Studio Hart, 65 Allen St.
INFO: 536-8337 or www.studiohart.com