Dale Frank

There was a smell of burnt straw. Standing unsteadily on an artificial floor which shifted beneath their tread, viewers watched as the artist sat and cleaned a rifle. On another occasion he wandered among his audience in a silent, darkened room, whipping a 9-foot willow branch through the air. Dale Frank’s performances were abstract, enigmatic, not always fully predetermined. Above all, they were designed to provoke tension. Since audiences could seldom understand all of what was happening, Frank’s events blended communication with misunderstanding, transmission with an in-built sense of loss. Gradually they became occasions in which the artist told himself a story about something private almost to the point of secrecy. But by that time he had also become a painter.

The fundamental gesture in Frank’s art is the movement of the long, close, curved striations that converge or separate dramatically in both his paintings and his large pencil drawings, resembling those airflow diagrams that justified ’30s streamlining. The resemblance is only skin-deep, however. In the charts, regularity is interrupted as matter noses its way into resistant vacancy. Frank’s space depends instead on the measured emptiness of the flat surface. It may propose an illusion of solidity by its ebb and flow, but since no boundaries occur, “form” cannot exist. Lines are vectors, not contours, the dense pattern functioning as a force-field in which energies or auras are plotted.

The emotional disturbances in Frank’s performances seem perfectly translated to the drawings—perfectly, and again abstractly. Yet since a completed drawing comprises both an emotion and the specific pretext by which that emotion was elicited, anthropomorphism is inescapable. It is not surprising that in Frank’s work the image increasingly strives to become a person. His latest wall-sized sketch has acquired teeth, a row of penises, and a fringed, pupiled eye, or perhaps two, along with windows and stalactites. Of its own accord, it seems, it is telling a kind of Romantic fairy story, with caves of ice, towers, and a livid moon which doubles as an eye-socket. Frank’s whorls of lines are both substance and insubstantiality, threatening the very fabric of the created world and providing centers that exude force. The essential paradox is compounded: flesh is seen from inside and outside simultaneously as the structure of the drawing becomes infinitely reversible. In the paintings, which are composed of that materiality the drawings only court, Frank simply plays the game differently, initially tracing counterparts of the drawn striations in the surface of thick paint, later floating piles of palette scrapings in seas of pigment.

Yet constantly turning structure inside out, outside in, only serves to heighten the impossibility of Frank’s initial, discarded dilemma of line as either field or edge. Jasper Johns once admitted that only three art-historical statements interested him, one of which was Leonardo’s opinion on line as the representation of the limit of the body. Like Johns’, Frank’s “field” solves the problem, though in a different way. But is he violating that solution by involving himself so completely with matter? The answer lies in the continuum of the world that is taking shape: solipsistic, sublime, exotic, unfree. More and more, the “strife” that Frank has said he desires in art, his drawing gesture of swerving or interference, and the communicated tension of the performances seem identical—tests of consciousness, that sudden fright or pinch by which we make certain we are still alive.

Stuart Morgan