The mixed-media art show runs July 21 through 25 at Common Wealth Gallery.
Madison-based artist Will Santino has developed quite a varied hustle over the past five years. He’s published cartoons in The New Yorker and posted all sorts of new work at a rapid clip on Patreon and Instagram. He’s also branched out as a humorist with absurd video sketches, developing stand-up material at local comedy open-mics. Santino’s added modeling and an OnlyFans to the mix as well. At the same time, his work as a painter has been expanding into whole other worlds that sprawl far beyond the bounds of a puckish single-frame cartoon or a tight stand-up bit.
Viewers can step into one of those worlds at Santino’s forthcoming exhibition Lost In Sunset City, running July 21 through 25 at Common Wealth Gallery, 100 S. Baldwin St. (An opening reception takes place July 21 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.) The show will combine illustrations with a 3-D “model city” built of foamcore, draped in the hazy purple-to-orange spectrum of a melancholy sunset. It’s his first solo art show since a 2018 exhibition that marked his graduation from UW-Madison with an MFA in painting.
“The New Yorker cartoons are my main thing as far as what I’m most known for, and I’ve been doing those for about five years now. But I’ve always also done…very whimsical, magical, fantastical illustration that usually links back to my lifelong love of fantasy and sci-fi and things like that,” Santino says.
“Over the last few years, it developed from mostly two-dimensional drawing, painting, watercolor, ink, and things like that. And then it kind of merged into collage. I started playing with texture and cut-out pieces of paper and layering,” he recalls. “And then that grew into more three-dimensional objects—modelmaking, [a] sculptural element. That really reconnected me to when I was a kid—I was really into Warhammer, Dungeons & Dragons figurines, Lego cities that I would build. It kind of felt like this return to something that I hadn’t done since I was pretty young.”
As he kept exploring and developing this work outside of cartooning, Santino decided to pull it all together with a story and a place. “Sunset City is sort of in between life and the afterlife,” he says.
One of the key illustrations in the show will be familiar to those who enjoy side-scrolling 2-D platformers: A small, cute, but courageous-looking figure stands poised in side profile against a richly textured background that suggests both wonder and danger. “Escape from Sunset City,” the hand-drawn text in the panel reads. “Press any button to start…” Elsewhere, dialog boxes appear, filled with writing that consists of cryptic glyphs.
As this setup implies, viewers will have to explore and get lost to unpack the stories and themes tucked in among the show’s towering spires, whimsically designed critters, and meandering paths. “I want it to be stuffed with details and things you can find,” Santino says. In fact, he’s providing visitors to the show with “I spy”-style lists of things to look out for. He cites both Where’s Waldo? and the teeming nightmare worlds of 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch as inspirations, so expect a lot of small detail that evokes responses from delight to terror.
Santino draws on video-game aesthetics to get at a theme that might be far less evident on the surface: His grief over the 2017 death of his older brother, Ian. The two were close—while Will Santino was working on his MFA at UW-Madison, Ian was also at UW, pursuing a master’s in landscape architecture, and Will was Ian’s caretaker for three years after Ian was diagnosed with cancer. Santino says the video game elements in Lost In Sunset City are an “intentional[ly] nostalgic” callback to his childhood, when he’d bond with Ian over games of Mega Man.
“I’ve never been much of a player of video games, but when I was a kid, I loved watching video games,” he says. “My older brother, when we were pretty young, would play a lot of Mega Man. It was a very formative memory. I would sit there and draw, doodle on paper, and make up my own Mega Man levels.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the show draws on the pixelated charm of early NES games. Santino’s flowing lines and use of perspective land closer to the stunningly layered worlds of more recent games like Ori And The Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, and Inside. None of those are actually direct influences on the show, but what they have in common with Santino is a powerful meld of classic format and distinctive style.
As the art show developed, Santino also began work on a graphic novel that he’s currently shopping around, Escape From Sunset City. He says that will draw on the narratives and settings of Lost In Sunset City, with a more overtly autobiographical bent.
To some extent, Lost In Sunset City represents the closing of a chapter in Santino’s artistic life. Going forward, he plans to focus much more on the stand-up he’s been workshopping at local open-mics and improv comedy he’s been exploring, including through an improv class he took this spring at Madison’s own Atlas Improv Co.
“I have discovered—as much as I love creating art and drawing—working for myself and working from home [is] very lonely, as an extrovert and a pretty social person,” he says. “This year, I’ve discovered how much I enjoy doing improv and stand-up comedy and things like that. I’m really excited about that new, invigorating discovery of a creative outlet.”
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