Friday, May 19, 2017

Jim Dine at Richard Gray

Jim Dine "Looking at the Present" at Richard Gray Gallery

The octogenarian work of Jim Dine is the kind of serious art his ‘happenings’  were mocking sixty years ago.  It’s heroic in scale and cosmic theme. It even feels liturgical,as enhanced by its display in the new Richard Gray Warehouse, a remodeled industrial facility with the nave, aisles, vault, and clerestory windows of a Roman basilica.

By his own reckoning, over the past forty years, the artist has made “a million” heart-shaped ideograms in a project that conflated popular sentimentality with the semiotics of contemporary academia and the provocative banality of PopArt.  But now, apparently in anticipation of his demise, the artist is addressing the same kind of profound questions that religions have been asking for millennia: what is the purpose of our brief, harried, passionate, conflicted, mostly ignorant and occasionally desperate human lives?  How can they be considered worthwhile?  How do each of us measure up?

With the few brilliant exceptions that made it into art history, religious art, especially of our time, has been content with the skillful and sentimental illustration of conventional, historic narratives. Meanwhile contemporary secular artists have presented the human condition as ever more fragmentary, temporary, alienated, and absurd.  Jim Dine has been no exception.  But now, as if hearing the final trumpets, he has brought that kind of modern human life – his life – to a last judgment.  And like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, he has condemned himself to Hell.

It’s not the medieval kind of Hell full of devils and monsters.  It’s the modern Hell of the isolated, inescapable self – the artist’s own disembodied, faceless head, hovering in a maelstrom of mud  (the artist uses sand) and colors that feel too strong and too cheap – as if a newspaper’s Sunday color comics had been left at the bottom of a bird cage.  The cage’s bars are suggested by a recurring motif of vertical black stripes against a glowing red background.

These paintings are full of death, rot,and corruption. They often contain human skulls, leering and horrific. Yet they are also full of bright colors and life – of pictorial energy, on the surface and a wonderful, seething, jumping sense of pictorial space. Whatever the young Jim Dine may have thought about the Abstract Expressionism that he rebelled against, the old Jim Dine has mastered it.

He has also mastered traditional European figure drawing, and applied it in two multi-panel pieces  In the triptych, “The Funny Pleasures of War”, he ogles voluptuous female flesh. Does the title suggest that  raping women is a pleasure?  That’s outrageous, but the human psyche is a law unto itself, and lust is here presented as resulting in more entanglements than pleasure.  A similar theme is pursued in “Errant Rays and Seeds Escaping”, a five-panel conglomeration of flesh, garish junk, and leering skulls. "A Constant Reminder of  Age and Gender" is a grid of heads and skulls whose title locates this vision within his own condition.  He is aware of himself as an old man – while the teeming fullness of his depictions remind us of his social status: he is a rich old man in a stable society.  He seems to have more than enough of whatever he wants - and an appetite to go with it.

There are no ideals here. There is no divine plan for human redemption.  There is no compassion for others. There is no peace, there is no worship, there is no hope, there is no future.   There is only the slightly humorous, slightly annoying, possibly threatening, and definitely inescapable obsession with the voracious self – repeated again and again across the walls of the gallery/church. 

But to give the devil his due, this is painting that feels both very strong and very honest. The overall compositions of the multi-panel pieces are thrilling.  The energy never flags in the details.  And the artist has boldly turned his back on the sensibilities of the contemporary artworld.  He doesn’t examine the language of visual art – he uses it – and he uses it to say something like:  “I am a self-centered, rich, old, heterosexual white male… deal with it”. Perhaps he should have run for President. Of special note are his adaptations of Edvard Munch.  Many of Dine’s spectral faces  borrow from “The Scream”,  and he even digresses from his primary theme to offer the Norwegian master a direct and worthy tribute in “Oslo, Midsummer with E.”

For those who follow contemporary art, this show is likely tangential.  The artist is now looking backward – from fifty to five-hundred years. But that’s the same reason the show can be so thrilling. Like great historic art,  Dine is glorifying something -- his own hungry self – and that glory is as magnificent as his self is disappointing.


Black Viennese Airport

Jim Dine's disembodied head reminded me of a cartoon character from the sixties -- so I've compared these three versions of faceless heads (from top to bottom):  a photo of himself, the image of Alfred E. Newman, and the head he depicts in his current paintings.

Looking at the Present Alone

.... and all he can see is himself, as his own giant head obstructs the view of everything behind it.

But what a strange, deep, translucent, glowing,  delicious form it is.

Coming from the  Darkness, I hear you laugh!

This feels like the arrival  of the goddess of voracious appetite - an American variant of Kali.
Note the black bars behind her -- you're locked in a cage with her and there's  no escape.

A Constant Reminder of Age and Gender.

Me, me, me, me, me.
Everywhere I look it's me.

Dine could be retroactively enrolled in the Monster Roster -- which might explain  why Richard  Gray is  now showing his older work in NYC, and his recent work in Chicago.

Errant Rays and  Seeds Escaping

Active – dynamic – violent – confusing – sexual – tawdry -  exciting – confessional – profound  

And Hellish

Four Ears

The repetition of empty,  monumental heads recalls the proliferation of giant stone faces at Ankhor Thom -- possibly depicting another megalomaniac - the Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII

Oslo, Midsummer with E.

Red Eye

The Funny Pleasures of War

That sanding female nude on the left suggests that Dine still practices life drawing.


While viewing the exhibit, it occurred to me that the cathedral-like  Gray Gallery would also be the perfect setting for the monumental Hellish paintings of Wesley Kimler.  Indeed, it would be instructive to see the work of both artists displayed side by side.

That could, of course, never happen because Kimler has been as antagonistic towards the artworld as Dine has been cooperatively engaged.

But as luck would have it --- the new Gray Warehouse is RIGHT NEXT DOOR to Kimler's studio -
so when Gray has an opening, Kimler can have an Open Studio and the same crowd  will visit both.

Here, for example an artworld paparazzi wanders into Kimler's studio after filming the Jim Dine opening at the Gray Gallery.

"Wesley who?"  She had never heard of Kimler.


The Garden of  Eden, 2003

The above earlier piece is also included in his show, but it's behind a partition at the rear of the gallery and I didn't know it was there.

Dine grew up in his grandparents' hardware store in Cincinnati.  His fond childhood memories of tools appear to constitute his idea of paradise.

But he also grew up in Walnut Hills High School, a city-wide college-prep school that I attended fifteen years later.

A  few life-size plaster casts of Classical sculpture, including Discobolus, were in the hallway, and every student had to translate Virgil's "Aeneid" and Caesar's "Gallic Wars".

Perhaps that is the origin of Dine's fondness for the Venus de Milo.


In his New City review Alan Pocaro writes:

but the paintings in “Looking at the Present” are far more Milton Resnick than they are Jasper Johns. It’s tempting to speculate that this late-career efflorescence is due in part to an existential gravitas brought on by old age. There is undoubtedly a conceptual seriousness present that’s lacking in a lot of Dine’s more lighthearted work of the past. Formally, however, there is a playful assertiveness to these pictures that is at odds with this reading. It is as if through art, one can be made, if not immortal, at least young again.

..with which I'd agree

In his New Art Examiner review Bruce Thorn writes:

“Looking at the Present” is an excellent and memorable exhibition. Not only is the work heroic in scale and visually strong, but Dine is also taking big risks simply by proclaiming the importance, power and relevance of abstract painting in a world of balloon dogs and technological advances. Academics have been preaching that the medium is dead since Duchamp’s earlier questionings. How is it that a contemporary artist fully knowledgeable of the brevity of his remaining years chose to pour so much time and energy into what could, at his age, be a swan song, and do it in such an obsolete language as abstract painting? This kind of commitment seems unheard of in today’s art world.

.....Think of how much more Dine might have accomplished had he always been committed to "the power and relevance of abstract painting" - instead of waiting until his final years.

This is the age of selfies and Jim Dine has been at it making self-referential art for a long time. If there is anything esoteric about this body of Dine’s work it is that he deconstructs the selfie to a nonspecific, more cosmic place closer to the collective unconscious. His work is always autobiographical, from using images of tools as references to the family hardware store, to his repetitive use of his own facial silhouette with protruding ears

The works are filled with exciting, unexpected details. In Coming from the Darkness, I Hear You Laugh, 2016, Dine surrenders sublimely to the act of painting as if surrendering to a lover’s laugh.

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