THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Bruce Thorn
Richard Gray Gallery opened their new Chicago warehouse gallery space April 28, 2017 with a very ambitious Jim Dine exhibition consisting mostly of large-scale figurative abstractions. There were nine paintings, all completed in 2016, one polychromed sculpture cast in 2004 and a poem scrawled graffiti style on an outdoor concrete wall. This warehouse space is now the most impressive commercial gallery space in Chicago, beating out even Kavi Gupta’s Elizabeth Street space and Shane Campbell’s bow-truss garage on South Wabash. The most remarkable architectural features of the gallery are the high timbered roof and skylight that have been refurbished and sandblasted.
Jim Dine (B 1935) is clearly at the top of his game in his old age and benefits from wisdom and experience while maintaining a rigorous practice and sustained energy level that would be remarkable even in someone a quarter his age. Gone are the kitschy hooks of his earlier Hallmark Cards-worthy heart series and the matter-of-factness of the tools series that the Dine cartel once flooded galleries with. The hearts were the equivalent of fast food: just because people buy it, that doesn’t mean that they’re good. Honestly, after the heart series I never wanted to look at the man’s work again, though surely millions loved those hearts.
Coming from the Darkness, I Hear Your Laugh, 2016. Courtesy Richard Gray Gallery and the artist. Image by Tom Van Eynde
“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.
Dine currently lives and works in Paris and has spent many years since 1966 living in the UK and Europe. What he has found enticing about life in the UK and Europe, in his own words, is a “respect for conversation.” Dine is well traveled, well read and personally connected to many iconic figures of 20th century art. He is obviously more aware of art history than newly minted art school wunderkinds could hope to be. There are plenty of reminders of Dubuffet and de Kooning; the influence of Robert Rauschenberg is strong. Dine wants to be taken seriously as an artist and works like he’s in a hurry.
The new work is simultaneously introspective and esoteric. Instead of the smugness of Pop Art, there is enough anxiety and uncertainty in these pieces to satisfy Egon Schiele, Hieronymus Bosch or even Woody Allen. Dine has been visiting shrinks since 1962 and uses these visits as subject matter for his artwork. This came about as a practicality. He admits to being agoraphobic and to having constant anxiety attacks. There was a time that he didn’t go outside for a year and a half. Clinical consultations became the subject matter of his life. It must have been difficult for Dine to deal with the huge crowd at his opening reception in Chicago. His appearance was consummately professional but he looked suffocated by an ocean of people and, like Mayor Emanuel, who was also at the reception, anxious to escape.
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. Four Ears (2016) was an easy match to the artist himself standing under the track lights on opening night.
Dine’s colors are pretty much straight out of the can or tube (he works with oils and acrylics) with little or no modulation. Dine is not the astute colorist that DeKooning was, but he does have the full box of crayons left over from his Pop Art years. His intended childlike lack of sophistication in use of color does not help a painting like The Funny Pleasures of War. This picture seems to lack any appropriate sense of gravitas. In black and white, or more subdued tones, it might more successfully lie somewhere between George Grosz and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but the choice of cheerful colors seem to trivialize the title.
The Funny Pleasures of War, 2015-16. Courtesy Richard Gray Gallery and the artist. Image by Tom Van Eynde
There is an almost mystical, manic use of extreme texture, sand, sign painters’ smalt, scraping and all kinds of physical manipulations. The paintings are big and the gestures are human scale. Dine’s work involves a lot of physical labor, moving around large quantities of paint; you can almost smell the sweat. As Dine says in the catalogue interview with Hamza Walker: “My whole life all I ever really wanted to do was be a workman, was work and have the luxury of working. I love working with my hands.” (Spoken like a real Midwesterner.) Later, in the same interview, Dine says: “I remember once in the summer of ’63 I was painting in an apartment we had on West End Avenue. I saw Jasper [Johns] and I said, “What do you think of this painting” and he said, “Well, you have to understand something: you are going to be punished forever for being so handmade.”
Detail from A Constant Reminder
of Age and Gender, 2016
The kind of gestural abstraction that Dine has recently adapted is interesting because in his case, like de Kooning, it is being practiced by an artist who long ago proved his expertise in draftsmanship. The pleasures in this new body of work derive more from loose painterly marks, happenstance and poetic metaphor than from planning, drawing and narrative. 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.
Bruce Thorn is a Chicago based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Contributing Editor to the New Art Examiner and a contributing writer to Neoteric Art.