Nature and Memory

An often cited passage by Jorge Luis Borges refers to a Chinese encyclopedia that divides animals as follows: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush (l) et cetera. The passage pokes fun at science’s absurd attempts to find order in a fragmented and irrational world. Using similar tools of playful ‘scientific’ classification, Dean Dass presents prints and paintings that, although beautiful, are also ominous. Beneath glowing paint and delicate inked lines hovers a sense of the untimely or sorrowful. The incongruity in the work alludes to the ambiguous position of the artist who warns of catastrophe but still risks crawling, like Borges’ shaman in ‘The Circular Ruins,’ into abandoned ruins to dream into existence a perfect man.

Mnemosyne also raises the larger question of the individual’s relationship to history. The work itself figures the continual disintegration and regeneration of systems of order in the natural and social world and in art and knowledge. It imagines that perhaps, in the collapse of Arcadias and the overturn of hierarchies, lies the possibility for new insights and new images.

The collage One Arm, Many Parts embodies in the broken image of a scarred forearm the entire exhibition. Historically, the unblemished human body represents wholeness and order, and reflects the perfection of the universe. In Dass’s image, the arm is riddled with imperfection and incomplete. The trope is repeated in one of the collage elements-fragments of photographs of Dass’s egg sculptures. The smooth blonde wooden eggs have produced within themselves spots of a different wood. Both images represent the threatening emergence of difference within wholeness. But then these odd collage bits, including rough oval shaped cuts from digital prints, shield-shaped flakes of mica, and painted elements, assume another order, grouping themselves by kind, in a scientific manner, and ranging in neat rows across the surface of the print.

Productive disjunctions and gaps structure both the hanging of the work in the exhibition and the pieces themselves. The paintings and prints are gathered into uncertain but vivid categories: canoeists, cosmos, foxes, landscapes, explosions. The same heterogeneity erupts within the works themselves. The disjointed subject matter and complex materials combine to represent the perplexed relationship of individual to world. The exhibition is, therefore, similar to Renaissance collections, which were constructed as microcosms with both man-made and natural works of art.

Choosing prophetic moments in history–the beginnings and endings of eras–Dass allegorizes them for the present. One example is his suite of prints For Girolamo Fracastoro, the 16th century writer commissioned by the Spanish crown to celebrate Columbus’ expedition. The resulting book was titled ‘Syphilis’ and in it, the author placed a curse for the conquerors in the mouths of the native birds who were escaping their guns. In these prints, fragile birds, illustrations from a science book, utter fiery and explosive curses against science and us. Of the two species, animals are the wiser. Dass frequently overturns the hierarchy between human and animal knowledge and mocks the traditional triumphant tone of historical and scientific narratives whose purpose has been to subdue the natural world and turn it into something useful.

Often, in the prints, foreboding for the future and the predicament of the modern individual has been figured as images of disease. The motif recurs in images borrowed from medical books and in the form of elements scattered randomly, like bacteria, across the surface of the paper. These images are also ambiguous, reading sometimes as signs of refreshment and renewal such as landscapes, registers of lakes, growing cells, stars or comets.

In the same way, the fragmentary body also opens to the possibility of a whole body and a world that makes sense. Borges’ shaman, who, beginning with a beating heart, dreams an entire ideal human, symbolizes such an artistic ethos. But is an artist able now to reoccupy such a Romantic position? For Dass, the problem is raised most poignantly in the act of painting.

Visually, some of the prints work in a manner similar to painting. Using different types of paper and ink, they play with surface and the illusion of depth, opacity and translucency, revealing and obscuring. Although inkjet printers or presses produce the images, the formal parameters are similar to those of painting.

But Dass is highly conscious that painting in modernism, and after photography, has a complicated history. To paint landscapes or anything else now is to take up a long Romantic tradition that many have argued has been exhausted. However, Dass wants to make works that will manifest simultaneously two positions: a painting that seems believable, unmediated, and whole, but which, at the same time, reveals itself as a beautiful illusion, and points the viewer back to the world to illuminate its fallen state.

The material solution of this problem lies in the treatment of the painting surface. An image that appears to have bloomed within the pigment itself, like the images of saints and gods that appear spontaneously in the natural world, is removed from the realm of culture or history. Paintings such as these seek the authority of natural fact. At the same time, their content remains similar to the prints. Fires burn down to embers in twilight. Buildings are being built. Suns set in lonely winter landscapes. Villages are bombed and burned. The pieces represent beginnings and endings–moments from history.

Borges’ perfect man lived, ignorant of his own history, only to discover with horror that he was a figment from a dream. Because they carry world and personal histories, or more exactly, memory, Dass’ paintings are not like Borges’ ideal creation. These paintings are more like Dass’ fragile cursing animals. They present themselves as reproaches to humanity manifested by nature itself.

—Monica McTighe

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