Dawn Clements: Conditions of Desire
October 12 – November 12, 2007
In her large-scale drawings at Pierogi Gallery, Dawn Clements seems to be operating in the expanding realm that Proust charted, the project of depicting the three-dimensional quality of memory. Many artists work with memory explicitly, but Clements takes Proust’s approach of privileging the detailed and personal, in the understanding that the human response to the narrative is always more automatic and emotional than it is to the “scientific” take. In other words, a lot of contemporary art seems to say, “Let’s apply these rules, and add these elements together according to these rules, and see what happens.” The face of the artist is missing, that tantalizing presence staring back at us from Las Meninas or Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, in which Caravaggio’s own visage is said to gape from the severed head of the giant.
Clements marks her works in almost every possible way, from the drawings of her studio to the wrinkles in the paper where it has been folded up in order to carry it around with her. Some pieces are patched, others joined together. On one ballpoint pen drawing, The World’s Full of Sighs (great title!), consisting of a lovingly-depicted Carmex tin nested in something ornate and efflorescing, like a tree trunk, is written, “We’re talking twentieth century here. Could you please stay with me in this century?” Hmmm...
In Clements’s work color seems most immediate, using gouache almost to denote, “This is something I painted from life.” The black-and-white drawings she makes from movies have a darker, more sketchy look, like the language of recall. They are sprawling and repetitive—like lengths of film—focusing on multiple chairs, multiple windows. The largest compositions, on the other hand, are dense and agglomerative, as in Untitled (Color Kitchen) in which she seems to be sitting in her home and painting a table, a large piece of a curtain, portraits, and a mysterious scene involving two women, possibly something she was watching on TV, as well as many other gestures towards things that may have been running through her head or added on later. These pieces reminded me a lot of the pictorial memoir of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), a Jewish girl living in Berlin before Kristallnacht, who, while hiding in France, recalled her earlier life in densely repeated images and words all crowded onto a page, like a free-floating comic book. Salomon’s diary was made after the fact, while Clements’s focuses on the moment of exploration. But both seem interested in the intersection of life and theater (Salomon’s diary was called Life? or Theater?)—in Clements case, quite literally the superimposition of TV and film onto her mental and physical space. Clements points out not only the dissemination of attention that the mind undergoes, the bits of recollection mingling with fragments of speech and what we see in front of our eyes, but the way these all combine, almost cubistically, to create a composition that is simultaneously mental and visual.
One also gets a sense of an obsessive and nostalgic personality, a film buff. A drawing taken from the little-watched 1940 film Kitty Foyle, (for which Ginger Rogers won an Oscar), is organized as if it is a memory from Clements’s own life, the ornate elevator cage occupying the same page as a window and an interior. The only thing cartoonish or odd in the drawing is a figure—a maid? Kitty Foyle herself?—as if it is the space inside the movie that is important to Clements, like a place where she has lived.
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Dear Unformed Desire I started this project thinking that I was going to write a book review of Unformed Desire, newly out by the Swiss artist Flurin Bisig. But the more I work on it, contemplating the book, its materials, his talks, our conversations, and so forth, I start to realize that I am actually writing a love letter.
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