at Lyons Wier Gallery, through December 31
Dan Oliver's eight new paintings at Lyons Wier brought a smile to my face. They look like Piet Mondrian abstractions, and in fact seven are life-size copies of Mondrians. But in several of the solid rectangles that characterize Mondrian's mature pictures Oliver has placed silhouettes of kitsch icons: a mermaid, a girl with an umbrella, a deer jumping over a log.
Oliver has intentionally "polluted" the quasi-religious purity of an icon of 20th-century abstraction; in his artist's statement, he says one of his goals is to force us "to reevaluate our assumptions regarding the relationships of so called 'High' to 'Low' Art, and Dominant Culture to the Other." It's clear from the writings of the major abstractionists--Malevich, Kandinsky, and many others besides Mondrian--that they sought imagery whose purity, whose removal from the everyday realm, would provide a passageway to the essence of things, to some more elevated or spiritual plane. But Oliver turns Mondrian's geometric abstractions into display windows for the kind of knickknacks one might find at a roadside souvenir shop. In his postmodern view, modernism's elitist utopianism, its claim to elevate humankind, has clearly failed; the designs of its masterpieces are no more than designs--decorative patterns, illustrations, or in this case a display scheme. And Oliver is being true to the function Mondrian has in our culture: "How many people," he asks, "have seen a dress that looks like a Mondrian, or walked into a shopping mall and seen a store decorated like Mondrian?"
In the central white space of Platonic are two silhouettes. On the left is an outline of a figure sitting in the pose of Rodin's The Thinker, though its smooth outlines indicate it is not a tracing of a photo of Rodin; in fact Oliver copied a reproduction of The Thinker in a way that makes it look like a kitsch imitation. This icon of modern profundity and interiority is contemplating the other figure: a large bunnylike toy, its rabbit ears ascending high above the thinker's head. The object of the thinker's deep thoughts is perhaps the silliest of the silhouettes in the show.
Diagonal Composition makes a similar joke. In a central white area is a mermaidlike shape with a fishy tail; in the gray square above it, a little girl with an umbrella. The shapes are oddly similar, as if Oliver were making an absurdist visual pun. Similarly, in Victory the largest rectangle displays the outline of a famous classical sculpture, Winged Victory of Samothrace. Next to this heroic, elegantly abstract outline, in a much smaller rectangle to the right, is part of a stooping figure in a hat apparently bending over a bucket, a diminutive form that looks positively cute beside Winged Victory. The line created by his neck and hat leads right to the goddess Nike's wings. We see what one scholar has called "one of the greatest achievements we know of in the art of the Hellenistic age" growing out of something that looks very much like a suburban lawn ornament; through Oliver's postmodern lens, Greek ideals are little different from mass-produced plastic.
Oliver writes, "The minimal character of the silhouette reinforces an image's iconic and mythic dimensions," and indeed his solid black forms are robbed of surface detail, making it at least possible to forget their self-enclosed cuteness for a moment and imagine them as abstract shapes with a tiny fragment of the generality of the colored rectangles. These figures also seem oddly lonely; I found myself thinking of Roger Brown's isolated silhouettes in the yellow windows of homes and apartment buildings. Lozenge, for example, contains images of denatured nature, a cactus and some legs in a corner red space, and a deer jumping over a log in a central white area: isolated from the landscape and from each other, these are images of images rather than of the physical world. In Elegy we see an Indian on horseback taken from a famous Remington sculpture near an elfin creature on a toadstool: two mythic depictions, perhaps, but from cultures that have nothing to do with each other. Yet one experiences both of these silhouettes not as originals but as copies; products, in other words, of our own culture, which has long specialized in ripping up the past and possessing and displaying products of other civilizations divorced from their original contexts, as isolated in our major art museums as Oliver's silhouettes are in these paintings.
Oliver, a recent MFA graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was born in 1963 in Belleville, Illinois. He remembers a middle-class childhood in a home populated with kitschy objects, and recalls a childhood interest in animated cartoons. A church nativity scene impressed him: "As soon as I saw it, I said, 'I want to do that.'" He recalls a rigid, formal education in "art in the modernist sense" at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he was exposed to modernist classics mostly through slides; "part of what I'm doing," he says, "is in reaction to that." Working on his current series of paintings, however, left him with a deepened respect for Mondrian. "I'm not commenting on him so much as on a particular way of thinking that grew out of modernism that he exemplifies but was not responsible for." Acknowledging that he painted his Mondrian designs from reproductions, Oliver adds that "the way in which we experience most of the world is in reproduction to begin with"--a statement characteristic of a postmodern artist, who typically takes as his subject neither nature nor other parts of the physical world but mediated images.
Still, Oliver fairly invites comparison with Mondrian, a comparison that helps illuminate the differences between a modernist master and a more recent artist of talent. (Many artists, of course, do not find their voice or mastery early; at Oliver's age, Mondrian was producing skillful but highly derivative landscapes.)
Mondrian, who took as his motto "always further," wrote that his move toward abstraction was an attempt to go beyond the accidents of a specific object or view to more universal truths. "Precisely on account of its profound love for things, nonfigurative art does not aim at rendering them in their particular appearance." He saw his art as a reflection of his own time, of the machine age: "The truly modern artist regards the metropolis as an embodiment of abstract life; it is closer to him than nature is, and gives him a greater feeling of beauty." But he also spoke of looking beyond "the expression of things" toward "the pure expression of relation." Underlying his attempt to see beyond the particulars of nature, individual objects, and human subjectivity was a broader utopian vision, of art as a creator of "New Life." Applying the principles he and his colleagues enunciated would, he hoped, help lead to the creation of "an earthly paradise."
Mondrian's rhetoric, which often borders on the mystical--he was a lifelong theosophist--doubtless seems absurd to those who see little more than plane geometry in his pictures. But for me a great Mondrian redeems all his words, even if it hasn't quite led to his goal. His colors, seemingly flat at first, become potent, charged, mysterious--the essence of colors. The lines and rectangles are abruptly cut off by the picture's borders, as if one were seeing only a tiny part of a design that continues in all directions forever--a kind of graph paper on which earthly patterns are momentary apparitions. Viewing a Mondrian leaves me feeling expanded, renewed, and often a bit out of breath.
Have a look, by contrast, at Oli-ver's Moderne. Painted like the others in acrylic, rather than Mondrian's oils, its colors seem at once brighter and more sterile than his. They have no resonance, they go nowhere beyond themselves; like pop-culture artifacts, they stop at surface prettiness. Designs that in another's hands were transcendent, seeming to depict a hidden order, here are present only to be looked at: an ideal design, as Oliver seems to have intended, for shopping-mall display.
This painting, like the others, is witty, and its wit is more complex than that of a one-liner; Oliver's cultural commentary has layers and ambiguities. Though he mostly reduces Mondrian's shapes to the flatness of his kitsch silhouettes, those silhouettes themselves are at least a bit powerful and mysterious, with a tiny part of the suggestiveness that also lingers, like a faint echo, about the Mondrian designs. The central silhouette in Moderne is of a curvy modern sculpture set against a white background, recalling the "purity" of modern gallery and museum displays and of the living rooms of collectors. The sculpture's outline reminded me of Jean Arp; Oliver describes it as his rendition of, the sort of art project that an amateur artist influenced by Arp, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth might create. To the lower left, a ram is silhouetted against a dark blue background suggestive of the evening sky.
Here Oliver comments on perhaps the most common defense of abstract art, of which Mondrian's writings are but one example, that it's special, even "sacred"--that it reveals the essence of things. The curves of the ram's body and horns look a lot like, almost appear to be the seed of, Oliver's composite sculpture. Those curves are worlds away from Mondrian's straight lines and right angles; but Mondrian's later abstractions grew out of his nature paintings, as he looked toward an inner structure that he saw in terms of lines. Yet no one who views Oliver's Moderne would believe he's doing the same thing: the phallic thrust of the ram's head and the weighty assertion of the sculpture are a postfeminist joke on the macho assertiveness of modern artists as creators of new forms, new worlds; alongside the ram's head, the sculpture seems a mannered, silly extrapolation of the horns rather than the deeper essence of anything.
Of course Oliver has a point: the way images are endlessly repeated in our culture, and famous images become stylistic motifs, robs all images of meaning and potency. But is that a good thing, something worth replicating in art? The jokes in Oli-ver's paintings turn back on themselves, until finally one is left with the chuckle of seeing everything devalued. While his witty images are more complex than the pop culture he takes as his inspiration, the experience they offer the viewer isn't all that different from a particularly extravagant creche, garish enough to create its own "ambiguities."
The problem I have with much postmodern art is that it doesn't offer any new insight into its subjects. Instead artists borrow the forms of earlier movements--minimalism, expressionism, color-field abstraction--fill them with borrowed content, and hope for a different result. Oliver writes that in his work "the trivial is redeemed as vital and significant," but until his imagery has at least some of the seismic power of Mondrian's, the more likely effect is to turn the vital into the trivial. His amusing, entertaining works offer considerable insight into our culture--but it's an insight that has more of the quality of an essay than of a fully realized work of art.
One question left unanswered by postmodernists is why artists feel they must accept the fact that "one experiences most of the world in reproduction to begin with." It's always possible to unplug the tube and go out and look at, say, the sky--or, in a large city like Chicago, at an actual Mondrian. But for the artist who does wish to make our glut of secondhand images his subject, what is needed is genuine illumination, not more replication. In the same way that Mondrian sought an inner structure to reality, postmodernists must look for ways to represent the mental state, and its implications, created by our current tsunami of endlessly reused images and ideas.