New York

Dan Witz

Semaphore East

Despite their nominal appearance as “portraits,” Dan Witz’s modestly scaled oil-painted or pastel heads evade the convention of portraiture that attempts to project the psychology of the sitter. Spotlit but softly modeled, his “types” possess a simplicity and anonymity encountered in Flemish genre painting, focusing less on notions of individuality than on the significance of the act, or gesture, depicted.

Two themes are presented. One describes an isolated head in a tinted-gray textured field. Occasionally grimacing, these strange lotus blossoms nonetheless seem to stay afloat by the buoyancy of their medium. In a second series of diamond-shaped canvases, the body emerges from the lower corner against a gray ground whose tonality judiciously holds the figure between claustrophobia and an indeterminate spatiality. If the shape of the canvas serves a purpose, it is perhaps that it invokes another “figure”—a crucifixion—without obviously stating it. The gesture—the head thrown back, the glance upward—is familiar iconography, common not only in religious painting but in Fascist Neoclassicism as well as in the studio publicity shot of the classic Hollywood male star. Here, nevertheless, there is little of the beatific ecstasy of the martyred saint, nor of the heroic or idealized pose of the cultural hero. The expression in these faces seems expectant, sometimes intent, sometimes mildly apprehensive. What is conveyed here? Is it a passive martyrdom, an appeal to a divinity, an anxious watchfulness? Our attention is caught, in any case, by the vulnerability of the gesture—by the taut exposed throat or the back view of a shaved head. It is a gesture, moreover, that implies not speech but an inarticulate utterance—a cry, a gasp—whose anonymous singularity can command nothing more than a mute response.

Here Witz’s images graze the surface of a recurrent tendency in East Village art in particular where a seemingly arbitrary eclecticism appears symptomatic not of an antihistorical bravura but of a search for paternal role models—a search that remains attached to the tragic belief that there is still a model to be found. Art, like society, like these speechless figures, has become infantilized, dependent, without the legislative power of given language. Indeed, we might argue that language is no longer “given” but withheld by a powerful but faceless corporate bureaucracy. If Witz’s “martyrs” anxiously seek outward from the anonymity of their isolation, if they scan the heavens for direction, it may be in the desire that the pale rider will mysteriously appear with his arsenal of deliverance and redemption. In this contemporary medievalism, we may surely hear the murmurings of a utopianism of the right.

Jean Fisher