Los Angeles

David Askevold

Jancer/Kuhlenschmidt Gallery

David Askevold’s photo-installation, “Delville’s Visit,” operates under the aegis of its namesake, Jean Delville, who was an obscure Symbolist painter active in Paris in the late 1890s. A reproduction of Delville’s Satan’s Treasure, a stereotypically Symbolist painting that depicts a slender, seductive Satan astride a river of languidly intertwined bodies in an aquatic hell, hangs in the entrance. In contrast to the theatricality of Delville’s version of hell, Askevoid’s response to it, which appears in a small, narrow room behind the print, is modest and sparse.

The installation in this room is a cruciform of two pairs of complementary walls that provide two different interpretations of Delville’s work.

At the center and over the doorway of one of the walls, which is painted black, are two indecipherable photographs. The colors and motifs of these pictures and of those on the facing wall quote forms from Satan’s Treasure—the arch of Satan’s tentacles and his underwater domain. The black-and-white opposition of these two walls is underlined by the colors in the photographs; on the black wall, the colors are cool and water sparkles on skin, while on the facing white wall, hot orange flames rise from a murky gray ground. The other two walls are white; on one is a single print, while on the other a stylized X is formed by about 30 5-by-7-inch prints. The montage at the center of this X is a smaller and reversed version of the single print on its complementary wall. The images in this montage, which include a monkey’s head, a diamond ring held between two fingers and a printed scarf sprinkled with costume jewelry, are quite readable, and their origins are readily apparent. Taken from advertisements in luxury periodicals and “men’s” magazines, they threaten their context. As literary subjects they would require a narrative to link them to Delville.

The relationship between Delville’s work and such ads is an ironic one. Askevold forges it by elevating advertising images to a high-art status, as part of a discourse on high art’s fall; but the elevation serves to indict the ads themselves. While the opulence of the Symbolists, the soft glow, blurred edges, suffused color and ambiguous yet compelling sexuality, have become the tactics of Madison Avenue, the splendor of Symbolist images carries with it a sense of repulsion and decay that advertising leaves out.

A critique of advertising is one of a number of explanations for the work that Askevold seems to offer. The subject of Satan’s Treasure and the mysticism of Delville and his Symbolist peers endow the images and their cruciform organization with a less rational explanation, which is the darker side of the critique. On each set of walls, the pleasures of the flesh face off against the wages of sin. On a still deeper level, there are paired allusions to religion—corrupt and fascinating in the deep red and jewelry, pure and mystical in the monastic setting and the cross.

Askevold’s installation seems almost sleight of hand. Finally, it is nothing but allusions. The narratives are uncomfortable because they are built on connections that are provisional and self-doubting—like everything else in the installation, they are contradictory. The mechanics of the installation—unframed photographs, oddly lit and often illegible—are lazy, and the practical origins of the images are pedestrian. Both are overburdened by the intricacies of the narratives.

The work’s salient point, finally, is its ambiguity, a point probably more obvious and less rewarding to those who are not versed in obscure Symbolist painting. By tapping an arcane body of knowledge, Askevold’s actions echo the Symbolists’ own adoption of the subjects and symbols of Catholic mysticism and the styles of medieval painters. And he shares a good deal more than that with them; they have a common enemy in modernism—in its early stages, for the Symbolists, and at a later phase, for Askevold—and he also insists on the literary before the literal. He presents the Symbolists as prototype “postmoderns,” and, like them, uses a tactical irrationality as a critique of modernism. Paradoxically, it is a rational tactic. Like the Symbolists’ mysticism, the ambiguity in this art is rhetorical and schizophrenic. Born as a critique, it hopes to be enlightening, but insists on the mysterious as proof of its claims.

Howard Singerman