BY KARL F. VOLKMAR, via the New Orleans Art Review – Winter 2014-2015
Beautiful Dirt: Ballgowns of Lightness and Dark
Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA
feel good paintings for feel bad times
Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA
AN APPRECIATION OF the semantic conundrums posed by the titles of Lesley Dill’s Beautiful Dirt: Ballgowns of Lightness & Dark and Deborah Kass’ feel good paintings for feel bad times can spice up one’s experience of the artists’ works collectively and individually. The oxymoronic juxtaposition of and syntactical parallels between words and phrases amusingly defy efforts at making sense until encountering the works themselves. Although the works themselves easily stand their own ground, the relationship between an individual work and its name and the collective presents an intriguing puzzle that awaits patient reconciliation on the part of the viewer. The names of the exhibitions themselves and of individual pieces that may appear arbitrary and whimsical at first reading are essential complements of the physical works that contribute to aesthetic appreciation as well as intellectual understanding.
The conflation of terms in Lesley Dill’s Beautiful Dirt: Ballgowns of Lightness & Dark – beautiful and dirt, lightness and dark[ness], beautiful and lightness, dirt and dark[ness] – mirrors the intricate agglomerate of forms and shapes that is Bird and Leaf Chandelier (made from metal, silver-leaf, wire, enamel paint, copper, and vinyl, hanging one hundred thirty-two inches long). Suspended from the ceiling, long threads of leaf forms cast evanescent silhouettes on the wall, animating the upper regions of the space amid which the figures pose, figures whose presence is amplified by the spectral mass above.
For those who know the world through unassuming eyes, dirt, composed of varying mixtures of composted biomass and minerals, is the fundament of life from which all things are made and, ultimately, evolve (remember the creation myth that first there was darkness and then there was light, first adamah/earth from which Adam/humankind was created), an understanding that illuminates the essential nature of dirt freed from enculturated negative baggage, thus casting the artist in the role of the creator.
Chandeliers, the source of light in the darkness of night when ball gowns are worn in seasonal events, signify a turning within and a turning without. Lightness and darkness are a binary opposition or two parts of a whole, of yin and yang and yin in yang and yang in yin, relative degrees in a continuum as in the length of days and nights, of lightness and darkness, of seasons and months and weeks and the days within them in the incarnation of nature’s rhythms just as life follows its natural course.
Hanging from the ceiling as a gown hangs from a body, the artist creates an environment in which gowns and chandeliers are the natural habitat celebrated in New Orleans Mardi Gras culture with its balls and parades, the Southern Belle with her cotillions and debutante balls, the Mardi Gras Indian with his feathers and flowers, and fantastic costumed performances of Nick Cave and Rebecca Horn.
The artist as illuminator is also the artist as metalworker who brings the circa six feet tall and almost as wide Dirt (made from copper, black metal and wire) into being from the ores from the earth as a Yoruba metalworker forging an Osanyin staff. Flesh-like coppery letters gleam through niello layers like the purity of the soul emanating through an incinerated, decomposed body. Textures, colors, edges and surfaces are expressions of the malleability of the artist’s imagination creating one of a kind designs suitable for wearing by Oshun or Maleficent. The narrow torso and slender arms arc like the stems of fantastic fungal beings thrusting up through the humus-covered floor of a forest or the muck on the edges of marshland ponds. Brittle erose lace like silhouettes surround the head like roots shredded from being pulled from the earth. Leaves grow out of the end of arms like a Daphne transforming into a laurel tree.
It is easy to imagine the darker beings as if emerging from the embers of campfires glowing among ashes after being crushed in the dirt before bedding down for the night or glistening iron smelted, melted, rolled, and beaten free of slag to the accompaniment of peening incantations from the metalsmith’s hammer and tongs. Perforated like dried leaves along a wooded path, Copper Bird Little gleams and glistens like a piece of Chimay jewelry awaiting the stage call for a Boschian fantasy.
A sense of presence that emanates from each enigmatic figure, of something invisible manifesting itself in the variegated curving surfaces are the expression of neither fairy-like lightness nor evil darkness but, rather, a power that transcends and reconciles both like the persona of a Kali Durga or Erzulie inhabiting the liminal world of consciousness, a crepuscular realm where lightness and darkness symbiose.
The large hand-painted metal Big Heart Gown (measuring eighty-two by sixty-six by seventy-eight inches) stands like an ancient Minoan priestess by virtue of her very existence exuding a primal energy and presiding over all, a primordial earth goddess embodying the forces of both regeneration and decay. One senses the commanding presence through the tensile, textual, and semantic energy expressed in the intricately irregularly textured surface with its super-scribed text and the reflection rather than absorption of the surrounding sounds.
The six feet plus tall figure of Gown of Blueprint wearing a multilayered dress with dramatically flaring collar printed with an elaborate text like a magical incantation exudes a regal presence like a diva on an operatic stage. The layers of her gown swirl in the air like an avian angel spreading its wings or the hem of a Sufi dancer’s dress as she twirls around and around and around like an Oya. The latent energy expands from within outwards with centrifugal motion, letters and fragments of words momentarily revealed like the murmurings of esoteric incantations heard from the shadows as the closed form opens upwards and outwards into spiraling ailerons.
Dill’s White Bird Homage to Charles Dickens Gown and Blackbird for John Donne are dedicated to the nineteenth century English novelist and the seventeenth century English poet, the descriptive storyteller and social commentator and the metaphysical lyricist. The dynamic visual interplay between serif and sans serif typographies of ancient and contemporary vintages, the evocative and expressive power of font design ornament the full bell of a hooped and petticoat volumes like a Godey’s print for the nineteenth century writer and the flounced hem of a royal personage for the poet. The forms of birds emerging from the bodices of these and other gowns perhaps signify the transformative nature of the ball and its participants, of the writer and poet, and of the artist as creator.
The name of Deborah Kass’ Levine-esque feel good paintings for feel bad times show encourages expectations of lighthearted works appealing to one’s sense of irony, humor, and intellectual delight as well as visual pleasure. The individual works will delight the art historical cognoscenti as the artist performs her role as practitioner of an intellectual aesthetic manipulating the art historical as well as popular culture. The artist’s subtly playful allusions to historical art of recent vintage by artists like Bourgeois, Johns, Kelly, Nauman and others is an renewal of the appropriation aesthetic of artists like Duchamp, Lichenstein, and Levine whose own serious playfulness evolved against the background of their own contemporary ‘feel bad times’ to create an art that appropriates the appropriators.
Seemingly quixotic juxtapositions and colloquial usages contribute to an art that does not follow prescribed syntactical rules as it disrupts semantic expectations. Subversive ironic conflations of iconic media, formal elements, and implied narratives combine with discontinuous historical associations in an art that is the ‘feel good’ antidote for ‘feel bad times’. The artist plays with various fonts (as does Dill) in typological essays relate to Johns’ delightfully perverse signifier/signified games and graphic design styles typically used in the advertising programs for products to make one feel good. There is also a darker side.
Like the reflections of the glowing colored lights of an amusement park’s rides scattered across a cloudy nighttime sky, After Louise Bourgeois conflates Nauman’s Life .. Death… neon sculpture with Bourgeois’ use of language in her art. The latter’s statement that “A woman has no place in the art world unless she proves over and over again she won’t be eliminated” reflects the difficulties Bourgeois had to deal with in her life as a woman and as an artist and the possibility for their amelioration in an axiomatic statement. The spiraling of the nautilus text, the simple but optically distorted geometry of the font, the interference auras, and the shadows cast on the powder-coated aluminum surface suggests an empathy with the interplay among light and form and surface in the work of Judd’s and Flavin.
The warm associations with that which neon lights typically promote and the pleasurable experience of line and light and color and design obscure the dark side, the seriousness of the need for perseverance, in a curious way analogous to what Bourgeois was able to achieve in the ongoing creation of work that enabled her to ameliorate her childhood traumas and the challenges of a male dominated art world. Attracted by the bright colors and involved in spiraling pattern that is reinforced in the reading of the sentence, one is both drawn towards and repulsed by the vibrant chromatics of the display. Because the discerning of lines and shapes and letters and words and phrases is constantly being disrupted as they disappear amid luminous auras, one must focus intently on the reading while being continually drawn away as if it were the artist’s intention that the viewer must persevere in the struggle to decipher.
One may wonder to what degree Kass as woman and artist identifies with Bourgeois’ as woman and artist in a male dominated world and, if so, how this might be reflected in the former’s work as it was in the latter’s, i.e., if the Kass’ work is autobiographical in addition to being intellectually witty. Bourgeois’ problematic early childhood because of her father’s emotional abuse offers an interesting perspective for reading Kass’ Daddy, You Made Me Love You, and This is a Man’s World as the expression of an intensely personal sympathy and intellectual empathy with Bourgeois as woman and artist.
The intensely saturated color a la Op Art and Neo-Geo, the back-and-forth push-pull, and circumferential rotation, the left to right and down raster-like dynamic of the letters and words and phrasing, and the intersecting and overlapping pullulation of ‘DADDY I WOULD LOVE TO DANCE [with you)’ are oddly confusing for a nominally “feel good” painting as if intended as an experiential metaphor for the psychic conflict experienced by Bourgeois and Kass as women and as artists. The five panel You Made Me Love You makes sense as a parody of Kelly’s reductive, Spartan, hard edge minimalism, an art that one was ‘forced to love’ because of contemporary critical acceptance, as Kass overlays a social narrative in the manner of Kruger that includes an allusion to ambiguous physical and/or emotional violence in a feminization of historical machismo minimalism. One might consider the horizontal orientation of You Made Me Love You meaningful in relation to ‘love’ and the vertical orientation of This is a Man’s World with the stereotypical male. Small Funk uses the same font as Daddy for Do you want to funk with me, perhaps suggesting an intended or unintended but significant relationship between ‘ I’ and an implied ‘you’, ‘you’ and ‘me’, and ‘dance’ and ‘funk’.
Although OM and JOY evoke the intellectual anonymity of Art & Language’s word play, the vibrant interaction between figure and ground may express the energy of Om and Joy. The two paintings form a symbiotic pair, making whole sense only when together. Om is the sound of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. The emotion of Joy is the very antithesis of Buddha’s first noble truth that “life is suffering.” The dynamic interplay among the clear geometry of letter as shape, the vibrancy of the yellow against the blue, and the texture of the blue ground that approximates Klein’s mystical messianic monochromes mirrors the feelings expressed by the words.
OY and YO represent two components of a palindrome, each the formal and aural mirror image of the other. The small but monumental scale parodies Indiana’s iconic Pop LOVE. The simplicity of the geometry and pristine character of shape, edge, and form, like a hard edge painting, are belied by the subtle complexity of surfaces and shadows characteristic of Minimalism a la Judd in its most elegant expressions. And, like the preceding works with their roots in the art of the sixties and early seventies, there are also the emotional exotic possibly erotic connotations of the culturally specific vernacular.