Thursday, 4 March 2010

Art Review: Dexter Dalwood at the Tate, St Ives

It isn't often one discovers a like-minded artist working in one's own medium, let alone another, but Dexter Dalwood and I seem to share obsessions, an aesthetic and an approach. Why write a blog if I can't indulge myself occasionally? I went to Tate St Ives to review their Spring show, on until 3rd May before it travels to FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in the Summer followed by CAC Malaga in the Autumn where I hope to catch it again - but ended declaring affinity.

Born in 1960, Dexter is the best part of a decade older which got me thinking what defines a generation, where the boundaries lie in time. They overlap, that's for sure, and are as much about affiliation as decade I'm going to stake a claim to those years between punk and acid house, the last of the forty year youthful rebellion that began with rock'n'roll, though I wouldn't consider many who lived their teens  through those years kin, kith would be fewer to those who grew up outside them.

By the time he got to art school  himself in the eighties - the course of art in the late twentieth century had long been set. If abstract expressionism had seemed like the only contender in the immediate post-war years, what might be called conceptual pop has dominated the last three decades. Pretty much all the 'Young British Artists' who hit the headlines in Britpop years - Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin - fit that definition as I'd write it, all children of Andy's factory, not Jackson's barn.

It is curious then to see the same artist select a show of works made in 1971 made by artists working in various disciplines across the generations productive at that time, from the dying whale of a late Picasso and the exit daub of Oscar Kokoschka to Warhol's 'Sticky Fingers' sleeve and Electric Chair Print, by way of a selection of work of artists of the St Ives school, already two decades beyond the heyday of the colony.

In 1971, Dexter Dalwood was ten and spending a formative three years living in Cornwall when Sam Peckinpah and Dustin Hoffman were making 'Straw Dogs' just down the road, fake mist merging with the real. The sixties had ended in violence and descended into decadence with the stomping boots of glam rock a proto-punk and the likes of 'Clockwork Orange' predefining its image.

The approach to curatorship that makes his 1971 show so enjoyable is not unlike the process that produces his work. Most of Dalwood's paintings are conceived through collage in the style of Richard Hamilton's innovations from the fifties, themselves owing much to dadaist and surrealist creations of the inter-war years. But while others stop there, Dexter uses those pieces as a launching pad for painting on canvases of a large-scale, rendering his cut-up in paint. The result is pure pop but with elements of surrealist dislocation.

By the time I'd achieved a decade, the Californian sunshine we see in 'Sharon Tate's House' (above) had shone on the horrors on other side of the couch. Dalwood's interiors have the ability to convey both 'Hello' (as in the magazine) and 'Goodbye' (the parting shot of Johnny Rotten). But like a good poem, they layer on meaning such that surface attraction soon melts through layers of reference and image.

I suspect I'll be standing in an art gallery years from now and suddenly make the connection between a Dalwood quotation and the original in front of me that itself may have incorporated quotation from the past. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. But what makes pop work where other, more avant-garde, conceptual art - and poetry - fail is that it takes surface attraction as seriously as it takes idea and process. I want to lure the reader into my work before they discover it is booby-trapped. So does he.

Dalwood, importantly, is also a colourist and knows how to use swathes of flat colour with painterly skill, whether it is the rich Matissian red of 'Diana Vreeland' or the indigo blue of one of the to-my-mind less successful more recent series of tragedies and suicides 'The Death of David Kelly'. Likewise, when it comes to the captivating 'Burroughs in Tangiers' that recreates cut-up on a larger scale - getting it down, tearing it up, reassembling it - making a magic ceremony of art.

Look closer and you see a sense of history at work. Most of the more effective pictures have an aspect of 'through the keyhole' - celebrity cribs with an empty cot - and the sense of absent presence is strong. A collage of time and place goes into recreating a place in time with regular quotations from the story of art merging into celebrity biography and the turning points of history. This is post-modernism, yes, but without the boredom that renders so much post-modernist literature of  no interest to anyone but fellow practitioners of the academy.

I'm taking a similar approach to Dalwood myself in my new project 'Tom Fool' in which tales of this clownish valet to the great dictators are told first in a cut-up of source materials that is then rewritten as poems that are my own reworkings of borrowed language in fictions that are born of a sequencing of images rather than the past as it was plotted. They are meant to evoke the past rather than merely describe it, and in summoning its spirit confront it. In a Dalwood painting, the real subject of the work is most often missing.

As it happens, Dexter played bass in The Cortinas - Bristol's only punk band of note - and I didn't. It is curious to note how many artists and writers who are my contemporaries started out in music, just as many musicians who emerged in the sixties got an art school grounding. I guess creatives flock where freedom is. Punk cleared the ground that post-punk - more interesting, longer lasting - grew in. In the same way, Andy Warhol raised the factory most artists of note still work in, even if we now find his work all surface, no feeling. And practitioners like Dalwood have picked up his tools and made art following hat takes us deeper into the present in our past by following his processes.

As Dalwood says, 'How you relate to other people is... contingent on sharing certain cultural obsessions, which genuinely mean something.' Whether that lasts is questionable. Whether that matters is debatable. This is your chance to dive into a David Hockney swimming pool, both flat and deep at the same time, while there's still water in it to swim in.

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