July 11, 2003

David Dauncey and James Angel Through Ross Bleckner's Lens

by Jerome du Bois

[Capsule Review: Get down to @Central Gallery at the Burton Barr Library before July 29th to be transfixed and fascinated by the eight masterful, charming, slyly psychological portraits painted by David Dauncey.]

In another piece, Life Always Trumps Art, I quoted the painter Ross Bleckner: If reality strikes us as a cultural and not a psychological dynamic, then our representations of it are as docile as the forms by which we receive it (as itself). We are placated by merchandising techniques that validate these forms. . . Whereas the problem of artistic creation is the problem of madness and death.

I found a perfect example of this dichotomy at the @Central Gallery today. On one wall, David Dauncey's devotional, close-up faces -- in acrylic on paper, each 22 x 22 -- of people the artist respects and loves, painted in mostly thumb-sized daubs over (my hero) Chuck Close-type grids (with inscribed circles: Sweet.). I'll return to Dauncey later, though.

On the opposite wall, like Bleckner's division become laboratory experiment, we behold James Angel's admittedly Martin Mull-influenced acrylic on canvas pieces (and some acrylic on paper ones as well), entirely painted collages from paint-by-numbers art, magazine illustration, vegetable-crate labels, advertising characters, mail-order catalogues, and the other mutating effluvia that drift around commercial culture like persistent, incurable memes.

To make a first, crude comparison between Mr. Angel and Mr. Dauncey (and yes, I know they know each other, 3carpileup et cetera): the faces. Mr. Angel, though he paints plenty of people's faces, seems afraid of them; Mr. Dauncey, in his artist's statement, began with fear; I mean to say that he embarked, as on a raft, into and toward his fear of failing to honor his subjects.

But look at the faces in Mr. Angel's works. There's a kid with eyes like raisins in a doughball, a slit for a mouth. Two adults in profile look as stiff and stern as stained-glass tightasses. A lady beating batter is realistically-detailed but completely emotionally vapid, so why bother?

I don't know if Mr. Angel is a native, or hard-won draftsperson, or if he works from an opaque projector, or both, but he avoids psychological depiction of the human face -- though he can show the shadows on a man's suit as slick as anybody.

It is irrelevant, anyway, because Mr. Angel is Martin Mull-lite, so sorry. Mr. Mull always seems to have a slippery edge somewhere on his canvases, where he teeters in the helplessness Jasper Johns rhapsodizes about, beyond the suburban housewives and uncanny birds.

But Mr. Angel can lay out anything he wants in an arbitrary way. Since nothing really matters -- here's JFK in gray, the lady beating batter, a boy sucking soda, two floating fly-agaric mushrooms -- since the canvas/paper is simply a neutral field accepting the results of a cut-and-paste party -- one can reasonably ask: why am I examining these nicely-modeled pears, which I have seen ten thousand times? (Jeebus, I sound like David Byrne. You see how pop culture can infect you?)

So let us turn around and survey Mr. Dauncey's much more focused and psychologically serious work.

Doug, with his pink-punk hair and his velocity, was my favorite: a swarthy imp, incipient devil, and a jester with a twist, he can't be bothered to look at the viewer, he's too intent on something at his lower left -- a bauble or a victim, the gleam in his eye won't reveal. This glance, and a suave smile Mephistopheles would envy, Dauncey creates with strong, facile curves, and the modeling is effortless -- remember, he is building on a grid with distinct, though often runny, strokes, painstakingly overlaid by even smaller, virtual grids.

He carries this technique throughout the eight portraits, though the size of the grids/circles varies. Each is triumph upon triumph. My other favorites inclue Glen of the badass orange glasses, who is probably even a cooler person than Bono, based on this dude's frontal, quietly confident attitude anyway; and the Self-Portrait, with that wonderful nose and furrowed, abstracted expression: you just know he's working out how to get these ears down!

These two artists seem to be on two different journeys. Dauncey: "The starting point of this series was, essentially, fear." It was the "driving factor . . . to assess whether I had made successful portraits." [Here's two votes: YES.] And he concludes that the "next stage of my work will . . . involve painting that is true to myself."

For someone who is committed to the psychological exploration of life and art, these words are sweet water in this parched Valley of the Dead. Which brings me to Mr. Angel: "This current body of work explores the painted collage. Inspired by , more specifically and directly, Martin Mull." And he then begins a drone about "non-narrative narrative," a simplistic synonym for incoherence, or, at best, surrealism. But surrealism is just a part of everyday reality; it's nothing special anymore.

Angel also says, "Style is a consequence of intent. The intent is to celebrate art and artists by creating a pure aesthetic using popular culture as a paintbrush."

I decided against analyzing this argument when I remembered what Chuck Close said about style and art: " . . . that art used to belong to the part of the brain that thinks. Now it seems to have shifted over in the public's mind to that part of the brain that chooses what covering you'll put on the seat of your car. When did art move over to the world of style?" [emphasis added] (in John Guare's book, 1995.)

Around 1965, with Big Andy, but that's irrelevant now, because -- here -- turn around, 180 degrees -- it's shifting back -- and look at Mr. Dauncey's work again. And linger, because it's about Life with weight.

Posted by Jerome at July 11, 2003 03:01 PM