Arts & Culture » Art Review

Making Strange



Ben Dallas

at the Ukrainian Institute of

Modern Art, through April 19

Wendy Edgley

at David Leonardis, through April 5

By Fred Camper

When Marcel Duchamp first exhibited such ready-made objects as a urinal, he changed art making forever. Many artists started to rely less on form and composition and more on the idea of "making strange"--creating works unusual enough in themselves to be expressive. At worst such art simply seeks novelty for its own sake, but at best an odd presence creates a kind of statement.

Ben Dallas paints designs on delicate wood constructions--thin rectangular slabs or V-shaped forms--creating something between painting and sculpture; but only if pressed, he told me, would he say they're "paintings that are sculptural." The painted patterns hardly create unified compositions, however. The tall, thin, rectangular Gradient--the larger of two works with that title, out of seven at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art--is dark at the top with a fuzzy gray-brown pattern of diagonal streaks at eye level. Lower down it becomes darker but with occasional bright streaks and splotches seemingly randomly distributed. But as one views this "painting"--over seven feet high but only four and five-eighths inches wide--from the side, one notices that the thickness varies from two and a half inches at the top to a quarter inch at the bottom; returning to the front, one sees that this dark structure comes slightly out from the wall as it rises, tilting a bit ominously toward the viewer.

Like the other six pieces, this one seems deeply hermetic. Neither painting nor sculpture, it contains painted patterns that are neither obviously ordered nor completely random; at times they seem about to coalesce into a composition, and at others Dallas seems to be working against all imagery. The work's forward thrust makes it seem a bit intimidating, yet it's so thin and devoid of unified designs that imagining it as an icon or monument might occasion a wan smile. It seems almost divided against itself. In effect the viewer's encounter with it becomes the work: one vacillates between looking at it from the front and the sides, as painted composition or wooden slab, as monument or a mocking of monuments. Yet its refusal to define itself becomes a statement: as one interrogates it for meaning, conflicting answers reshape the slab into a giant question mark.

Dallas, 54, a Chicagoan who grew up mostly in Indiana, recalls that while he took some art classes before college, he knew almost nothing about contemporary art. The fact that his older brother was born with a shortened spine and enlarged head, among other problems, affected him "both negatively and positively--the physical presence of my brother expanded my notions of what people can be." Working in the National Gallery of Art in Washington after college brought him into close contact with old master paintings for the first time: "I was in awe of the marks in Rembrandts and Vermeers--they were readable as being on, and simultaneously in, the surface. They had a tendency to glow." Studying art history, which he now teaches at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, he says has affected the art he makes now: "It's a result of me continuously being concerned intellectually with the nature of art." In the 80s Dallas's art was largely conceptual, with a humorous bent. For one piece, he says, "I took surveys of what an artist should wear," asking participants to vote for one of three shirts. He also made paintings about "my anxiety about painting." Then, about eight years ago, "I started giving in to something that I didn't normally do--just making things that looked good to me. I made things that I was willing to work on until they took on some kind of life, a power."

The power of Turn, like that of Gradient, comes in part from its strangeness--from the way it evades being either an object or a picture. A largely black four-foot-tall rectangle only three and a half inches wide, it's covered in its upper half with a barely visible grid resembling an accounting ledger. Midway down a pattern of dark brown concentric arcs emerges against a light tan ground; their color isn't all that different from the inky darkness from which they seem to have come. Were these circles completed, they'd be a lot wider than the picture, suggesting that this is a fragment of some larger continuum. Yet their repetitiveness--they were made using a stencil Dallas cut--is almost decorative. Straining to see the whole, one comes up with such images as spider webs at dusk and multiple sunsets, images seemingly encouraged by the arcs' mysterious connection with darkness but discouraged by the pale, smudgy colors and lines. Ultimately the spectator is thrown back on the impenetrability of the art object: each of these sui generis works denies interpretation.

The peculiar quality Dallas gives his surfaces contributes to the works' mystery. Covering his marks with wax, adding new marks using carbon paper and transparent stains, sanding, or buffing, he creates patterns that are at once thrusting and recessed. These designs and the works' three-dimensionality force the viewer to spend time with them; Dallas even paints on the thin sides of Gradient; others offer wider edges. Fold could be described as a long thin slab folded over on itself, implying motion, opening or closing. A complex black-ink design made with a rubber stamp resembles both random blots and Japanese sumi-e ink painting; peering around a bit to see inside the fold reveals a checkerboard pattern lower down and dark brushwork above it. Is the piece opening or closing? What is the relationship between the ink design and the checkerboard?

What I like most about Dallas's works is the way that, almost despite themselves, they're poetic. His denial of a singular identity is what brings them to life. Consider Splits, a group of seven small pieces of wood mounted on a wall, one in the center and six in an asymmetrical circle around it. Each piece is an inverted V, a bit like a clothespin or salad tongs; each offers Dallas four different surfaces to paint on--the tops and bottoms of the V--and must be seen from various angles, since the edge facing the viewer is so thin it's negligible. The one angle that seems best for viewing Splits is almost unobtainable, though one can press one's head against the wall and try. Attempting to figure out these birds in flight decorated with colors and smudgy circles made me feel more alive.

A different kind of strangeness marks Wendy Edgley's 26 works at David Leonardis. But here, in what we might call a classic example of high postmodernism, the strangeness comes from stripping images of their original context and placing them in a new one, without much further evidence of the artist's hand. The new context is silver gum wrappers used as a backing for imagery ranging from Jesus and Mary to road signs. Edgley transfers black-and-white images directly to the wrappers from photocopies of art reproductions and her own photographs, using an acrylic gel to take up the ink. And whatever the image, the crinkled silver surface makes it iconic: its irregular folds recall cracks in paint, and the overall glow resembles the gold that often surrounds saints' heads in icons.

In some works, the gum wrappers seem to make an ironic point about mass culture, sanctifying her automobiles, surfers, and road signs while connecting them to our throwaway world in a neat fusion of opposites. Edgley, 19, is fully conscious of this effect. A School of the Art Institute student, she grew up in southern California: "I wasn't raised with a lot of history in terms of place," she told me. "The moment something is old, they tear it down and build something new." A surfer, she became aware of "throwaway consumerdom" through the junk she saw in the ocean--"Doritos wrappers, floating plastic cups." Still affected by her first encounter with homeless people at age 10 or 11, she also sees gum wrappers as objects that everyone, rich or poor, might handle, "objects that don't separate people in terms of class and race."

If I have a reservation about Edgley's show, it's that the gum wrappers render all the images identical--the toilet in The Throne, the wounded figure in St. Sebastian. That would be fine if Edgley intended a pomo leveling, but she seems to be aiming, in her most effective pieces, for translatable meanings. Many of her pieces are diptychs or triptychs, recalling sacred panel paintings. In The Saved and the Damned an angelic figure and a troubled one are placed on either side of a road sign depicting a road narrowing from two lanes to one; together the imagery and title suggest an allegory of the Last Judgment. In St. Sebastian an actual pin pierces the figure's "skin," suggesting a genuine belief in the reality of the legend. Concern for an aged, now-incompetent relative underlies Sunset Blvd., which places a picture of Edgley's great-grandmother at the center, flanked by a "Sunset" street sign and a No U-turn road sign: like a memento mori, this piece reflects on mortality. In fact Edgley is a committed Catholic, and her use of road and street signs suggests that she sees a spiritual path within the everyday world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Sunset Blvd" by Wendy Edgley; "Splits" (detail) by Ben Dallas.

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