Dale Frank

During the second half of the ’70s there was a moment when the river of art burst its banks and broke into thousands of rivulets. And art, that quintessential expression of Western culture, underwent a profound transformation; what science calls a “hopeful monster” was born. It will be the task of future philologists to establish the hows and the whys, and whether the first mutation came about in Germany or in Italy, whether it emerged within an Anglo-Saxon milieu or took root on the continent between the Rhine and the Oder-Neisse, or between the Alps and the Gulf of Naples. What is certain at this point is that the rivulets have broken up and in due time the dispersed waters will flow together again. It has happened before. And, from past experiences, we know that from the provinces of the empire, from the most spatially and temporally remote cultural “islands,” organisms bursting with energy—more diverse than new—will pour forth to contaminate the linear purity of art’s imperial image. That image, in turn, changes: losing its typical contours, it becomes embellished with other, incongruous ones. And nothing seems to make sense. Art’s forgotten or buried potential explodes and confuses the world.

Like Varus in the wilds of Teutoburgh, so too the Coca-Cola Kid will be defeated. And the Augustuses of contemporary art will eternally lament the loss of their legions, even as they continue to reign. The barbarians, the fringe avant-garde, are still lacking in strength, unfortunately, especially for them. A swarm of snobs, in the strictly etymological sense of the word, has risen up to brighten our unspeakable (at least for we who live it) present.

The “colony” of Australia could not fail to respond to the challenge, and it is sending signals from its distant frontiers. Overcoming an internationalist, imported sense of nostalgia for things British, perpetuated in the cult of the modern and in the nastier examples of so-called social or political art, the new art of Australia bears the marks of the context that has nurtured it—its limits, its marginality.

The work of Dale Frank is one of the most significant of these signals from the frontier; it conveys an absolutely genuine fakery. On the one hand, there is a baroque legacy in the austere dignity of his painting, its excessive reserve; this in turn links it to the modern Surrealist tradition, from Odilon Redon to Max Ernst, in a primitive/provincial lineage that highlights the contributions of the Rumanian Victor Brauner,the Canary Islander Oscar Dominguez, and the Chilean artist Roberto Matta. Added to this foundation, on the other hand, is an attitude as disrespectful as it is fascinated. This is a result of the transavanguardia in the broadest sense of the term, but it is also right in step with the brazen eclecticism of Manhattan’s Lower East Side: the glorification of the Beauty-Absurdity-Destiny triad, a revindication of the plurality of experience and the singularity of the product, a rejection of Modernism in favor of a decidedly compromising and compromised worldliness, an obligatory passage through the mass media, a conscious interruption of genetic linearities. This work aspires to translate the baroque into a more vernacular surrealism, and the result is Mad Max science fiction.

Frank is fresher and more vibrant than his New York colleagues; but, lacking their underlying sense of disquiet, he is always confident and is less conditioned by the subghetto of the art empire’s capital. He is grandiloquent, but never obscene. His titles are proof: The Fountain—The Palette Possessive Erection and Selection of the Chocolate Wheeler Dealer Impotent Artist, 1985 (acknowledging Marcel Duchamp), or Self-Portrait as the Torso of Saint Bartholomew Accommodating an Impossible Hotel Erection, 1985 (acknowledging certain Baroque painting). With a chromatic range that recalls Technicolor more than it does painting, and using varied drippings and impasto effects, Frank conveys images that could be called oneiric—sulphurous swamps, beastly aliens, bizarre moons and suns, unreliable horizons. These paintings are the indispensable sets for disasteror sci-fi films. And yet the figure, or actor, is constantly elusive, overshadowed by the polymorphic character of the paint surface, which works against clarity or impeccable definition. Just as Tina Turner sings “We don’t need another hero,” but does so using the clearly heroic musical form of the hymn, Frank’s backdrops of absolute intellectual certainty tend toward an overworked grandiosity. It seems that inconsistency is the only constant in art today.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.