“If I was ever going to do a show about online dating, this is the perfect time,” street artist Don’t Fret says by phone. Best known for plastering wheatpastes of bright, loosely rendered vendors, street performers and other city archetypes on walls around town, the twentysomething Columbia College grad has never sought romance online. But he has a long-distance girlfriend in New York. “It’s pretty shitty,” he says of the digitally facilitated relationship. “And now with the whole Manti Te’o scandal—it’s such a crazy story. I felt it was the right moment.”
For “Love in the Time of Online Dating,” opening Friday 8 at Johalla Projects, Don’t Fret brings his rocket-nosed cast in from the cold streets to mine the absurdities of modern love. “A lot of my work is about ridiculousness, and dating in itself is a bit of a perilous thing,” he says. “But when you add the Internet and all its craziness, it’s even more so.”
Influenced by the ’90s cartoons of his childhood, like Doug, Don’t Fret paints in the careless style of a child. (“If you looked at some of the things I drew when I was five,” he says, “they’re not too far removed from now.”) But the artist, who asked we not use his real name because he displays his street art illegally, has a grown-up intention: playful satire, spelled out in the scrawled text accompanying the charming characters. In one piece in the show, hovering between the blank expressions of an algorithmically matched pair, is the text: “They like the same foods and resent the same groups of people.”
“I think it’s funny that there are these certain base things that determine compatibility,” he says. “Even something as simple as whether or not you’re cool with eating dead animals.”
A couple of months ago, he laments, he had a series of dates with a woman before he realized they were completely incompatible. “The first date, I find out she lives in Rogers Park—practically the other side of the city from my place in Pilsen,” he says. “The second date, I find out she is vegan. Well, I make my own sausage. Third date, I find out she quit drinking because she thinks it’s morally wrong. I was like, okay, well, what the fuck are we gonna do together?”
Such personal dating misadventures—like the time he was evaluated on a woman’s date-review blog—helped fuel the show.
“Yeah, that happened,” he says blithely of a painting of a calico feline captioned with “She talked about her cat for six hours & then we had mediocre sex.” “But I expect a lot of this will be relatable to people of a certain age. Despite the barrage of experience, love has some fairly common narratives.”
For “Love,” Don’t Fret plans to reprise a piece from a show last fall at Grand Bizarre Gallery in Wicker Park: a lineup of women that includes “The One Who Said She’d Love You Forever,” “The One You Really Hurt” and “The One Who Handcuffed You To Her Bed.”
“Everyone has had that crazy person who handcuffed you and lost the key, right?” he says, laughing. “I finagled my way out of the bed frame, biked with my wrists cuffed together to a police station and asked very nicely if they would un-cuff me.”
On Craigslist, Don’t Fret glimpsed the Internet’s most desperate love seekers. He illustrated a series of the site’s “missed connections” ads. “One was like, ‘I saw you at a club. You had a tattoo of the Quaker Oats label and some major camel toe.’ ”
Equally absurd is his concept for a sculptural installation for the show. “I was thinking of a computer keyboard inside a condom,” he says. “Not sure a condom can stretch that far, but I’m gonna do some experiments.”
“Love in the Time of Online Dating” logs on Friday 8 at Johalla Projects.